Kabul-born fashion designer Anjilla Seddeqi has long drawn inspiration for her formalwear collections from the bright, intricate and embellished traditional dress of Afghan women.
But now, with the Taliban back in power, she and other emigre Afghan women are championing their homeland’s rich clothing heritage to protest against a new dress code for female students, and help women affected by the movement’s return.
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“I feel like what the Taliban are trying to do is to eradicate Afghan women from society in general, and then to also eradicate our culture. And part of that is our dress,” Seddeqi, 39, said by phone from Australia, where she moved as a child.
“They need to be called out all the time … Silence is not an option,” said Seddeqi, whose bold and colourful eveningwear creations are cut in brocade and silks.
Since sweeping to power in mid-August, Taliban officials have sought to persuade the world they have changed since their harsh 1996-2001 fundamentalist rule, when women had to cover themselves from head to toe.
They say women will be able to study and work outside their homes, but the new higher education minister said earlier this month female students would have to adhere to an Islamic dress code including hijab religious veils.
It was not clear if that meant headscarves or compulsory face coverings.
Soon afterwards, Afghan women living outside the country started posting pictures online of themselves wearing bright traditional dresses – their hair and faces uncovered.
“I think any kind of kind of expression through fashion is going to be very, very limited,” Seddeqi said of the order for students. “Afghan women will have to obey a standard dress code. That’s what it’s signaling to me.”
Seddeqi, who trained as a lawyer before pursuing a fashion career, said she had always sought to highlight the design and textiles traditions of a country that is rarely the subject of positive headlines in the global media.
“All people have been seeing in the West is war and destruction, so for me there was a purpose to show another side to Afghanistan – the human side, the culture and traditions.”
Afghanistan is one of the world’s biggest cashmere wool producers, according to the Business of Fashion research group, and many Afghans work as artisans skilled in embroidery and beading.
Fashion designers of Afghan descent are also using their skills to support Afghan refugees and those still living in Afghanistan.
As London marks fashion week, which runs until Tuesday, British-Afghan designer Marina Khan is planning to hold a charity sale of her Avizeh brand’s clothing and accessories, which mix vintage pieces with new designs.
Khan, 29, who was born in London to Afghan parents, said she hoped Avizeh would encourage young women of Afghan descent to embrace their heritage“In the beginning, it took a lot of people a lot of courage to start wearing the local wear. Now, a lot of girls have sort of reclaimed it,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She said women’s clothing should not be policed by men, but added that the many Afghan women who prefer to wear a veil should have their choice respected. Traditional Afghan dresses are also modest and unrevealing, she noted.
Khan has also drawn on her business for community support work, such as teaching Afghan women refugees about building a business and promoting themselves online.
Like Seddeqi, she is also hoping to work with more female artisans in Afghanistan as they face diminishing opportunities to work under the new Taliban government.
There have been reports of women being sent home from their jobs and many fear a repeat of the Islamists’ 1990s rule.
However, Seddeqi said it had given her “a lot of hope” to see Afghan women both inside the country and living overseas protesting against efforts to reduce their rights and curb their freedoms.
In a patriarchal society, fashion offers women a precious chance for self-expression and visibility, she said.
“I’m really happy to see that fellow Afghan women are making a point that what is being imposed by the Taliban is not traditional dress,” Seddeqi said of the virtual campaign under hashtags including #DontTouchMyDress.
“It’s a form of resistance.”