Hellen Rose singing with men at the Yellow house in Jalalabad

With one voice

4 October 2017

They were risking their lives by being there. But as the music started, and Hellen Rose began to sing, they all dared hope that some progress is finally being made by the women of Afghanistan.

Hellen Rose

Rumours that a woman would sing for other women on International Women’s Day had spread like wildfire around Jalalabad, one of the largest cities in Afghanistan. Any woman doing such a thing was risking her life, and in 80 years of prohibition, no woman had dared. Many in the city didn’t believe it could happen. But this year, 2017, a woman had been asked to sing and she had agreed, fully knowing the danger.

The woman was Hellen Rose (BVArts ’97 BTeach MTeach ’01), a self-described “girl from the ’Gong”, meaning the coastal city of Wollongong, south of Sydney. Her travels have taken her a long way from Australia into some of the world’s most troubled locations, not in the way of a journalist or an aid worker – but as an artist and a teacher.

Sitting outside a café in an inner suburb of Sydney, Rose has an energy that conveys she wants to make something out of every moment. She is talking about what drives her. “People think it’s a bizarre and crazy idea,” she says, smiling. “But my thing is, I want to declare education on war. I want to declare love on war.”

Singing in Jalalabad was like that; using music to help break down some of the worst oppression of women the world has seen. The most visible element is the full burqa, which Rose herself, an ardent feminist, often wears when she’s there.

“It’s a suffocating, hobbling, torture implement,” Rose says. “It’s 50-degree heat and the women are wilting, with no utilities or amenities. I put the burqa on because I’m there to work, but I know I’ll take it off again. That’s not true for my sisters, students and mothers.”

An audience of Afghani women watch Hellen Rose sing

Part of the audience that were present when Hellen sang.

Wearing a burqa, Rose arrived at the performance venue by armoured vehicle, with soldiers blocking off the streets as they went.

The day before, extremists had bombed a hospital in Kabul, killing more than a hundred people, and they had threatened to do the same here to prevent the performance. Rushing from the vehicle past edgy, heavily armed soldiers, Rose quickly found herself in a very different space.

She was in a room with more than 3000 women, all there to be part of a moment that would symbolise, for all its danger, that the future for women in Afghanistan might be a little bit brighter. Might be more free. The women’s movement in Afghanistan is very underground, but there were women from all parts of the country, rich and poor.

So the question has to be asked, how did Rose find her way from Wollongong to Jalalabad? The short answer is, through her life partner, the artist, filmmaker and 2015 Sydney Peace Prize winner, George Gittoes.

They first met when Rose was 23 and Gittoes was in his 30s and married. At the time, Rose was a squatter with other artists in a rundown but historic Sydney building called the Gunnery. It was part of the punk art history movement.

Hellen Rose singing on the night

Hellen Rose sings a traditional song that no woman had sung in public for decades.

“I was a radical feminist performance artist, an avant-garde actor and I sang in bands. People found me very difficult to deal with because I had so much energy and so many ideas,” Rose remembers. “I also wasn’t backward in coming forward about issues like paedophilia and homophobia.”

One night she woke to find herself surrounded by police with dogs. “It was tough times,” she says simply.

Reconnecting with Gittoes when she was older and he was separated from his wife saw an intensely bonded relationship begin immediately. A reality soon dawned on Rose: Gittoes was constantly in the world’s most troubled areas – Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, Palestine, Rwanda – making art and documentaries and promoting peace.

Singers can be just as brave as soldiers. Artists are as brave as soldiers.
Hellen Rose

“I thought, I’m not going to be sitting at home,” she says. “I just couldn’t bear that if anything happened to him, I wouldn’t be there.” Gittoes was reluctant, but soon after Rose went with him to Pakistan. They are now an artistic and activist partnership, working on projects everywhere together. Next is a documentary about the broken communities of Miami that have become like war zones, complete with child soldiers.

Rose was invited to sing that night in Jalalabad by Afghanistan’s Regional Director of Women’s Affairs, Anisa Imrani, a woman who had seen her two predecessors killed in front of her. The invitation wasn’t because of Gittoes, it was because Rose herself is now a well-known and respected figure in Afghanistan, largely through her work in the Yellow House.

Hellen Rose

Through her many trips to Afghanistan, Hellen Rose has gained real insights into the lives of the local women.

In the early 70s, Gittoes was a founder of the famous Yellow House art collective in Sydney. He has now recreated that sense of free-flowing creativity with another Yellow House; this one in a walled garden of Jalalabad. It’s a place where the local people, who are surrounded by destruction, can come to learn new skills and create. The local people, particularly women, are hungry to learn. For the freedom the Yellow House offers, Rose and Gittoes know that the threat from extremists is always there.

“My family are school teachers,” Rose says. “So I thought, okay, I’ll go to the University of Sydney and become a teacher. I’m just so glad I did it. It made me stronger. From what I’ve seen, I now realise that teaching is a revolutionary act.”

In her turn, Rose has been taught by the people of Afghanistan. “I was taught Pashto, the official language of Afghanistan, by singing the songs of the Pashto people,” she says.

That night in Jalalabad she sang two ancient and beloved Pashto songs that even elderly women in the audience had never heard sung live. As the second one ended there was silence, but Rose could see eyes in the audience sparkling with tears.

“After a long pause, applause and chatter broke out,” Rose says. “I tried to speak to, and hold the hand of, every woman who came up to me – there were hundreds.”

She still remembers what she thought when she was first asked to sing, “I just thought, I’m bloody well going to do it. Singers can be just as brave as soldiers. Artists are as brave as soldiers.”

Written by George Dodd
Photography Stefanie Zingsheim and Hellen Rose

Read more SAM stories

See more