Before the Taliban retook the country in recent months, in a period of prosperity, Afghanistan began to open up to new cultural changes and establishing itself as a place for equal rights. The women of Afghanistan were given hope, opportunity and freedom. Hope to be whatever they wanted, opportunity to get an education and freedom to dream. Although still in the shadow of fear of the Taliban, women and girls alike began leading equal lives, from achieving academic greatness to fulfilling dreams of playing sport in a professional setting to learning skills they had only hoped for in previous generations.
Maryam Majd captured these dreams. These women who battled against so many obstacles to achieve. Distilling moments in time and highlighting Afghan women in sport, Majd and her camera have been given the opportunity to show what that looks like. “I am trying to improve human life.”, she says when asked what the driving force behind her passion for photographing women is, “ I am always looking to capture moments that the world of power and the general public do not see.”
Now, in the aftermath of the shocking events that sent ripples the world over back in August, we take a look at some of the stories from the country and its people. After the Taliban took back the country, the women Maryam Majd photographed and met will continue to fight for their equality as they settle into new lives, whether remaining in their home country or not.
Q: What is the driving force behind your passion for photographing women?
M: It is better to say that I have never demarcated my professional work. But, what has made me focus more on women’s issues is the circumstances of the society that I live in. Living in the less developed country and the Middle East puts us on a path that we have to be separate. (Gender segregation)
Ever since I opened my eyes, men have always been one side and women on another. The big question started here for me and I was looking for it in the environment where I lived. I realized that women are never prioritized. They are in the last category after men, politics, power and money. I saw their social harms and problems. I experienced a loss. Because I was just a woman. I experienced the shortcomings that I had as a child in my society. I found the answers to my questions in photographing them, so that maybe other generations will see it in the future.
My photos are the voice of the silent community.
My concern was to be able to show something to the rest of the world with the help of the media. I bought my photography equipment with difficulty and I photograph with love and passion. That’s why when I hold the camera, I look for a moment that maybe I can change or be effective in. It does not matter what your expertise are, when you want to be effective you can do it anywhere. Of course, this effect is not always positive. Sometimes what is created can have a negative effect.
I am trying to improve human life.
I love it and I want to do it with the help of my camera. That’s why I chose sports, social and women’s photography for my activities. I photographed the homeless, the injured and the community because I thought it was what I did or I can do; Photography of people whose voices have never been heard.
Q:How did you experience Afghanistan?
M: I went to Afghanistan to cover the 2018 parliamentary elections.
Every time I enter a country, the first thing I do is go down the stairs of the plane, take a deep breath and smell the air of that city. It was different in Afghanistan. It was not strange for me as someone who came from a neighboring country, who even shared a common language. But upon arrival, I faced a high-security atmosphere with the presence of commandos and the sound of gunfire.
I experienced a strange feeling.
The skies of Kabul were silent and the sound of NATO helicopters flying in the sky could be heard.
Afghanistan was not just a mission for me, I was looking for women who had the right to vote for the first time. And after election day, which was full of fear and time bombs exploded, I went looking for Afghan women athletes and found them.
I experienced a lot of things there. And the only thing I can say is that Afghan women who are looking for progress are growing like seeds wherever they are. They have been expelled from their country these days because of the Taliban, but in whatever country they are in, they will still try to make up for what they lost.
Q: What challenges did you face as a photojournalist in Afghanistan?
M: It is always dangerous for a photographer and journalist to be in war-torn countries. It is natural that I have experienced them too. In crowded environments, polling stations, rallies, and even attending underground clubs where women trained, I was always waiting for something to happen.
But it is better to say the challenges, regardless of the physical condition, for me the situation of the people was a challenge. They tried to change with minimal opportunities and conditions, and women were seen as much more active than men.
Q: What was your most memorable moment?
M: In Afghanistan, I was not just a photographer, of course I was a documentary filmmaker who was in different situations.
Two places impressed me a lot.
The night I went to the stadium for the Afghan football derby. Many women and girls stood on the grandstand beside the men cheering on their team. It was very amazing for me, as well as a little jealousy … because I still could not go to the stadium for the men’s soccer derby match in my own country as a female photographer.
Even if I want to be the only spectator. I will not have this permission.
That night the result of the game was not important because I didn’t even know the teams, for me it was just exciting to be in the presence of women in the stadium. The right that I did not have and I still do not have.
When I spoke to the players of the Afghan women’s national football team, they said that their country is traditional and people despise girls who play sports. They believe that exercise is not necessary for women.
“Life is not easy for them, and they decided to fight those who look down on them and no longer want to live in tents.”
Another place that impressed me the most: a neighborhood on the outskirts of Kabul known as the Displaced. Many Afghans have fled their homes due to insecurity in Badakhshan, Sar-e-Pul, Kunduz, Helmand, Badghis and Baghlan provinces and have settled with their families in other parts of Afghanistan, especially on the outskirts of Kabul, among rubble and municipal waste collection sites.
Women and children who had no health insurance. Children born and raised in the rubbish. They were children. They were happy.
Maybe because they had never seen the outside and no one even thought about them in return. There were families who sold their little girls to save themselves from starvation. Maybe it was very painful to face them.
Q: What preconceptions did you aim to tear down? Do you think you have achieved this or impacted it in any way?
M: Lets see, each of us, as a person regardless of gender, is always looking for a positive change in our professional and work path. I had to become a photographer and work as a news and documentary photographer. Naturally, I am always looking to capture moments that the world of power and the general public do not see.
Living in the Middle East will teach you that you will always be alone.
You have to fight for the minimum and the most obvious salary to get it. Well, I’m in a war between taboos. And my only weapon is photography. I have been focusing on women’s life stories for 17 years. I am known as the first women sports photographer in Iran.
Throughout those years, there were many athletes who worked for the sport. They faced a lot of pressure and opposition from their family. But posting photos of them during sports and competitions not only eliminated this opposition but also increased families’ support for athletes. It was as if they had just realized the importance and seriousness of the sport that girls and women did. They took it and were even proud of it.
Photography speaks the language of the image and does not need a translator to communicate with it.
People can see and understand it without intermediaries. I just had photography as a tool and decided to start working on it. In other words, photography is my tool to show people who have the right to life. Women’s sports in Iran have been around for years, even if they are not photographed. It cannot be denied or ignored. But my camera has given me the opportunity to show what happens.
A part of the life of many Iranian women is shown to others.
Of course, I emphasize that before me, there were also photographers who practiced women’s sports, but I chose this field professionally. I am very happy that if you go to any sports halls of women’s competitions today, you can see two or three young photographers photographing women’s sports. I think I was able to encourage many Iranian girls who have not had a place in the Iranian press for years, the Iranian female photographer to enter sports photography, as well as the girls to exercise who grew up with taboo in traditional families.
Interviewed for our Afghanistan Stories: A Short Series. We will be publishing an article each day this week. Maryam Majd is an award winning Iranian Documentary & Women’s Sports Photographer and IMAGO partner.
See her archive and work with us here.