In Afghanistan, Tattoos Are Markers of Autonomy

Afghan women use them to combat their society’s contradictory views, even if the stakes are high

Ruchi Kumar
ZORA
Published in
8 min readSep 26, 2019

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Soraya Shahidi, a 26-year-old Afghan nail and tattoo artist, puts the finishing touches on a tattoo.
Soraya Shahidi, a 26-year-old Afghan nail and tattoo artist, puts the finishing touches on a tattoo on her client Marina. Photography: Ivan Flores

ItIt is a warm August weekend day in the Afghan capital of Kabul, but that doesn’t slow down Soraya Shahidi, a 26-year-old Afghan nail and tattoo artist. Dressed smartly in her ripped blue jeans and long yellow coat, her hair pulled back, and sporting a lip piercing, Shahidi stands out in the sea of modestly dressed Afghan men and women, some covered in traditional long, flowing blue burqas. Her unique ensemble is only a part of her extraordinary personality as the first female tattoo artist of Afghanistan.

At great personal risk, Shahidi offers her services in a safe, nonjudgmental space to Afghan men and women who are defying social norms to etch their skin with delicate art, sentimental symbols, lines from Persian poetry, or simply the names of loved ones. “I always wanted to be a beauty artist, and since there are no such [female] tattoo artists in Afghanistan, that motivated me to be the first one in this country,” Shahidi says in an interview with Zora in a tiny borrowed studio built in an annex above a men’s hair salon.

Many Afghan women are opting to get their bodies inked, not just for aesthetics but also as a form of silent rebellion and empowerment.

Top left, clockwise: Soraya Shahidi aligns a stencil of the tattoo on Marina’s arm; Shahidi lights a cigarette as she takes a break between clients; Shahdi cleans off ink from Marina’s tattooed arm. Photography: Ivan Flores

The temporary space — a niche in a wall that barely fits four people — was provided to Shahidi by her friend so she can work part-time on her expanding client base while she figures out a suitable location for her own studio and finishes her undergraduate studies. Shahidi, who is also a single mother, another rarity in Afghanistan, is mentally preparing herself for the backlash and opposition she expects to receive when she starts her own studio. Already, she faces harassment online for her work. “Some people reached out to me and…

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Ruchi Kumar
ZORA
Writer for

Writer. Journalist. Humanist. Based in #Afghanistan. Words @ForeignPolicy @Guardian @AJEnglish @WashingtonPost @Vice Earlier: Web producer @dna @TimesofIndia