By Miriam Arghandiwal
KABUL (Reuters) - Encased in a head-to-toe burqa, the image depicts a distraught woman slumped on a cement stairwell, the work of Afghanistan's first street artists who use graffiti to chronicle violence and oppression.
The female-male duo surreptitiously spray-paint the crumbling and dilapidated walls of buildings in the capital Kabul, abandoned and destroyed during 30 years of war that still rages today.
Talking of her woman on the steps, Shamsia Hassani, 24, said: "She is wondering if she can get up, or if she will fall down. Women in Afghanistan need to be careful with every step they take."
The somber depictions of Afghan women on Kabul's rutted streets offer rare public insight into their lives, still marred by violence and injustice despite progress in women's rights since the Taliban was toppled over a decade ago.
In an abandoned textile factory, Hassani spray-painted a wall with six willowy figures in sky-blue burqas, who rise out of the ground like ghosts.
"In three decades of war, women have had to carry the greatest burdens on their shoulders," Hassani, who also works in the faculty of fine arts at Kabul University, told Reuters.
Her friend and fellow artist Qasem Foushanji, 25, said he avoids images he describes as cliché, such as the Taliban, but wants to produce socially political art about aspects of Afghan life that "make people go nuts, like women being beaten."
His works include a huge red heart flanked by bones, with the words "the positive anger" spray-painted across it in English.
The pair, taught how to spray-paint at a workshop in Kabul two years ago, hope their graffiti will gradually bring art back to Afghanistan, where cultural development has been severely hindered by turmoil.
"People were too busy trying to feed their families and art was shelved," said Hassani, whose family comes from Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace. Like millions of Afghans fleeing violence, Hassani grew up in neighboring Iran as a refugee.
"We can develop our culture with art, but not suddenly, and not alone. For a country that's undergone so much pain and war, it will take time," she said, sporting a dark overcoat and a head scarf the shade of blue she uses in her paintings.
The austere rule of the Taliban frowned upon painting and banned images depicting peoples' faces, saying it was un-Islamic. They banned cinema, music and theatre outright.
Foushanji, from western Herat province, said stigma surrounds artists, seen as "odd and crazy" in Afghanistan's ultra-conservative society.
Both Hassani and Foushanji said that stigma translates into harassment and disapproval from government officials. And like graffiti artists in other countries, they face attempts to stop them spray-painting public buildings.
"My friends have backed out when they realized it was serious, they said it was too dangerous," Foushanji said between puffs on a cigarette.
For now, the two have avoided main streets and outdoor markets, where they would love to spray-paint, and are instead sticking to sites hidden from view.
Hassani hopes to one day teach a graffiti course at her university, similar to the kinds colleges offer in the West.
Contemporary Afghan artists are also accused by the more traditional figures of society of being too Western-leaning, which the graffiti duo reject, saying they instead use Western tools to tell an Afghan story.
"I will never say I am not an Afghan. This messed up country is mine. I will perfect what I have and try connect to our people," said Foushanji.
(Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Michael Georgy and Ron Popeski)