Jenny Matthews on the erosion of women’s right’s in Afghanistan and her Panos print ‘For the poetesses’
I’ve always been freelance and never had very much money, but I have had the freedom to work how and where I’ve wanted, and then fortunately been able to sell photos. A lot of trips I funded myself. Firstly in the 1980s to Central America and then because I spoke Portuguese I was interested in Angola and Mozambique. Gradually I was commissioned by NGOs, particularly Oxfam, Care and Action Aid. I had a commission in Rwanda just before the genocide and then I went back in July 1994 working with Africa Rights and continued working with survivors.
I’ve worked in Afghanistan since 1988. Over different trips I’ve created an archive of pictures. During lockdown, I started making quilts out of the images. I printed them on material, and sewed them together. I wanted to intervene with the images in some way. There’s a whole history of women sewing, and then sewing on images. Like Louise Bourgeois’ work. It makes people look at things twice, I think, to spend more time with images.
Last August when the Taliban took over and started eroding the rights of women, I decided to take a series of images of Afghan women and to embroider over their faces to mark the fact that they were losing their visibility, their freedom, their rights. This woman is one of those. I’ve dedicated each image to a group of women, because so many different sectors are affected. This one is dedicated to poetesses and writers, there are others to educators, legal workers, health workers, victims of domestic violence. I didn’t want to use people’s names because it’s such a difficult time and you don’t want to reveal who people are.
Few women can work now in Afghanistan. The invasion was not a good idea, but at the same time, a lot of women’s projects did get off the ground and women did have access to education, which they hadn’t had under the Taliban from 96 to 2001 when girls were just learning clandestinely at home. Once the universities reopened there was this massive surge of young, enthusiastic women who wanted to exploit the freedom they were suddenly offered. And then last summer, as the British and Americans ran away and got on their planes and flew out, everyone’s lives changed. There was a whole legal system, of which women were part, judges, prosecutors, women were running the courts, to a large extent, they are now out of the country. There was a really high proportion of women in politics. There were lots of women journalists, filmmakers, radio reporters, and suddenly, everyone’s very cautious. It’s a young country in some ways, one where there have been dreams, and then they’re dashed. It’s been particularly hard for people who glimpsed an alternative. In some ways, it sounds as though the country is functioning, but with difficulty. And a lot of fear.
I’ve focused on women’s rights for much of my career. I was just beginning to take photos in the early 80s when I was asked to join Format, which we set up as a collective with money from the Greater London Council. It was a women’s agency, I think there were 11 of us and our remit really was documenting women’s lives, that was a big impetus. It was the time of Greenham Common, the miners strike.
I’d lived in Brazil, and I was interested in Latin American politics and then the Nicaraguan Revolution happened in 1979. I went to photograph there a few years afterwards. That was a revolution that clearly recognised the strength of women, women took part, in government and in the fighting. In 2003 I published a book on women and war, combining the work I’d done over 20 years across various countries, looking at the roles that women take on during and after conflict and the emotional labour of those roles. I’m very proud that I managed to do that.