Artist Maliha Abidi captures the strength of refugee women

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It’s that time of the year again where social media feeds are saturated with imagery of iconic women in pop-culture and politics. While it is important to celebrate those females who have endured discrimination and oppression to ‘get a seat at the table’, it is equally important to recognise marginalised women on International Women’s Day.

Maliha Abidi does just that.

In her latest series of illustrations commissioned for the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), the young Pakistani-American artist sheds light on the strength, bravery and determination of refugee women in fragile humanitarian settings. Inspired by the recent conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia that has forced more than 50,000 migrants into neighbouring Sudan, Maliha explores the hazardous and tiring journey that women, many of whom are pregnant, and children embark on for safety and shelter. The journey from Ethiopia to Sudan for many displaced persons is approximately four weeks and many refugees arrive exhausted and with few belongings. 

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Also present in Maliha’s bold artwork is the heroic character of frontline female workers. Due to the sensitive nature of sexual and reproductive healthcare, which is core to IPPF’s work, the response team usually consists of local female nurses, doctors and other health practitioners. Come rain, snow, war or even a national pandemic – nothing can stop these aid workers from responding to the emergency needs of vulnerable women refugees and their children in humanitarian crises. 

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Throughout her career and as a feminist creative, Maliha has collaborated with several NGOs including UN Women and World Vision, and she consistently advocates for women’s rights. Her book Pakistan for Women was featured on the BBC, and features stories of 50 Pakistani females who have achieved extraordinary things. To mark International Women’s Day, Maliha began a project in January to draw 100 iconic women across the fields of arts, politics, and literature. The final illustration includes everyone from the late Breanna Taylor to Malala Yousafzai and Emma Watson. It’s Maliha’s ability to recognise and celebrate all female achievement that makes her work so rich both in context and aesthetics.

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To learn more about Maliha, visit her website

Vanessa Power is studying the MA Media in Development at SOAS. She works at IPPF within the Humanitarian Comms Team.

*All photos credit to Maliha Abidi 2021

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