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Women's Jihad

Art depicts the struggle of Afghan women.

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"I think there is a tremendous power in intention," said Lori Andersen. Andersen's intention with the art show A Social Conscience was to depict the horrors in Afghanistan, to offer hope and to send intentions of healing back to the war-torn region. "I would like people to walk away with the feeling that they've done something, that there is something they can do," she said.

The exhibit, at the Tucson/Pima Arts Council Gallery, consists of work by local artists Andersen, Julie R. Rackow, Drew Robinson, Natalie J. Willemsen and Tania Gonzalez-Ortega. All donations, sales and prayers from the exhibit will go to the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA).

A year ago, Andersen and her friends first found out about the RAWA through its Web site, www.rawa.org. "We were just horrified at what was happening," she said. "We wanted to make other people aware that women were not allowed to be educated. They were not allowed to see doctors unless they were women doctors and most of the women doctors had been either driven from the country or killed ... so there is one woman doctor to every 50,000 or more women."

The group contacted RAWA, described the show it planned to do and asked about the possibility of getting a speaker from Afghanistan for the opening. But even before September 11 it was too difficult to get people out of Afghanistan. So RAWA put the group in touch with the Afghan Women's Mission in Los Angeles, which serves as a liaison for RAWA in the U.S.

The group of friends successfully applied for a show at T/PAC with the goal of raising awareness in Tucson of Afghan women's issues. "Then September 11 happened; mine and Julie's idea shifted," said Andersen.

"We wanted to bring an awareness of what was happening under Taliban rule and then that changed and shifted once the Taliban was ousted. Now the Northern Alliance is back in power and they had been worse than the Taliban initially," said Andersen. "Our efforts now are making people aware that there is no infrastructure. There is no way for these people to make money and there is not a democracy currently."

Political changes lead to artistic changes, and the work of Andersen and Rackow, her collaborator, has changed. They refocused their installation as a way of sending "healing energy" to Afghanistan. Their piece "All My Relations" is an effort to illustrate the "horror of what's happened to people in this country and offer some effort of hope and healing," said Andersen. The piece consists of a pool of oil full of disembodied hands trying to escape. Around the pool hang prayer flags to which people are encouraged to pin their own notes and prayers.

"At the root of all this is oil ... as with most of our interests with foreign nations, it all boils down to petroleum," said Andersen. "And [the Taliban] was chopping off people's hands for minor offenses ... for no reason or for whatever reason they accuse you of that may or may not be true."

For the show's opening, the Afghan Women's Mission was able to book a speaker who was an aid worker in an Afghan refugee camp--Beth Kangus--and T/PAC was able to arrange for a speaker who was a former professor in Kabul. Andersen recalled that one man asked Kangus if she thought the nature of the Islamic religion was changing now that Muslims were preaching to kill the infidels. "She was so wonderful and so gracious and just very calmly explained to him that in the Islamic tradition there was a covenant originally with the Jewish and Christian faiths and ... those faiths were to be protected," recalled Andersen. "The equivalent would be her asking him if the Christian religion was changing now that they were bombing abortion clinics. It's a very few fanatical people that say they got their information from the Bible, but it's their interpretation of it and it's not what's being taught across the board in that faith."

Andersen is careful to point out that the show isn't a critique of misogyny in Afghanistan, and reiterated Kangus' words in saying that misogyny is not part of the Afghan culture and that historically the tribal women "have been allowed to carry weapons and fight right beside the men." Then she added, "That's a cultural bias to assume that [Afghan culture is misogynistic] and I don't feel like we were assuming that. ... What was happening wasn't so much a cultural misogyny so much as a leadership that came in with real misogynistic views of women."

As a testimony to this fact is Gonzalez-Ortega's painting "Mothers of the Revolution," based on a photograph of marching armed women. "I didn't want to depict suffering," said Gonzalez-Ortega, "I wanted to depict empowerment. And when I saw the image of the women holding the guns, I was just really floored. When women take to arms, that's such a strong statement."

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