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.

This image is dedicated to all women teachers. A few female teachers continue to hold classes even though the Taliban, after taking power in September 2021, have not yet declared that girls can return to school. Between 1996 and 2001, when the Taliban last controlled the country, many women held clandestine classes for girls in their homes, at great risk to themselves.

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.

This image is dedicated to beauticians and hairdressers. Beauty salons became both a provider of work for thousands of young women and a welcoming female space in Afghanistan after the end of Taliban rule. When the Taliban took over again in September 2021 they removed all poster adverts for beauty salons.

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.

This image is dedicated to Afghan mothers.

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.

For the poetesses

From ‘Facial De-recognition’

Embroidered photograph on linen 2021

I was shocked when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan again in the summer of 2021. As a documentary photographer it has always been important for me to know who I’m photographing; to talk to people, know their names and show their faces. As the Taliban re-entered Kabul and took control of the country I felt compelled to make a statement about women I had photographed over the past 35 years.

I printed photos from my archive onto linen and cotton, painted out the background in the original photos with block colours of acrylic paint and then added embroidery to both honour and disguise them. Embroidery references the clandestine activity of women in Herat during the previous Taliban rule (1996-2001) when women would meet as part of the Golden Needle Sewing School, ostensibly to sew but in reality to study literature. I wanted to capture this spirit of defiance. Sewing is perceived as a harmless female activity but there have always been subversive stitchers and needlework has been a tool of feminist protest.

On a personal level the meditative process of sewing is an opportunity to assess the history I have lived through and deal with the frustration and sorrow of knowing that for many Afghan women the freedoms they had gained so briefly are once again being curtailed and their lives are, yet again, on hold. Each image is dedicated to a specific group of women who have seen their dreams crumble and their opportunities dashed. This particular image is dedicated to poets and writers.


About Jenny Matthews

Jenny Matthews is a documentary photographer and filmmaker working on issues of dispossession and human rights with a particular emphasis on the lives of women and girls. She has worked all over the world covering momentous historical events including the guerrilla war and independence of Eritrea, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the genocide in Rwanda.

Jenny’s book 'Women and War', chronicling 20 years of women worldwide affected by conflict was published in 2003 and exhibited widely. She is working on a second volume entitled ‘Stories of Love and War’ as well as documenting life in her community in Hackney, East London.