“Made in Afghanistan” once symbolized hope. Now it’s fear.

Haseeb Rahimi, a 30-year-old Afghan entrepreneur, and his younger sister, Rahiba Rahimi, a designer, had big plans for 2021.

This was going to be the year they took Laman, their five-year-old, international fashion brand. Already, they had organized a parade at the American Embassy in Kabul, equipped the candidates with “Afghan Star” (a local version of “American Idol”) and organized a parade in Milan in 2019. Bring their creations to Oslo (where Mr. Rahimi was in business school planning to open a showroom), Dubai and beyond would mark the next step in their dream of creating Afghanistan’s first modern luxury brand – one that would combine heritage. aesthetic of the country with contemporary styles, using the language of fashion to recast the image of their country in the global imagination.

The siblings had developed a network of 500 artisans, including 50 at the headquarters in Kabul, all headed by a woman. They wanted the “made in Afghanistan” label, sewn into every piece they sold, to mean something new both inside and outside the country.

But on August 15, the day the Taliban entered Kabul, they told their staff they were shutting down.

“Everything is wiped out,” Rahimi said by phone from Norway, referring to the company’s equipment, inventory and investments. (Ms Rahimi and her family fled to Turkey at the start of the summer, and she was suffering from “severe depression,” he said.) “This is what happens when you dare to hope in a hopeless place. “

“Hope” rather than “style” or “money” or “the trend” might seem like a strange word to associate with fashion. Almost as strange as writing about fashion against the backdrop of a war-torn and anguished country.

Yet he comes back again and again in times of trauma. In Afghanistan, fashion, with its low barriers to entry, is not so much a symbol of complacent indolence as it is a lever for advancement. It is a path to financial self-sufficiency, especially for women who have been excluded from the formal academic and professional ladder. It’s participating in the global conversation and reframing a cultural narrative.

And there, its essential role of self-expression and antidote to horror is evident. The drive to create beauty even in the worst of times is a universal human impulse – a statement of belief in what is possible.

As Ms. Rahimi said in an interview with The New Humanitarian newsletter in 2017, “Fashion kind of helps our women come out of their shells and say to society, ‘I’m here. Look at me. Hear me. ‘”

This was the case, for example, in Ukraine in 2014, during Kyiv Fashion Week as Russian forces loomed at the border. In Israel and Gaza, where fashion shows were held during the attacks of the same year.

And so it has been for the past 10 years in Afghanistan, as NGOs and private entrepreneurs have turned to fashion as the way forward. This is in part because it is a job that many women could do at home while looking after their families and traditional roles (even in areas already controlled by the Taliban).

And this is in part because of the country’s legitimate history and heritage as the center of the Silk Road, with its associated textile and embroidery art, and later “the Paris of Asia. central “- a nickname given to Afghanistan in the stable period from 1930 to 1970, when the” Afghan coat “became a staple in Western fashion. (Indeed, in 1969, Vogue hosted a fashion shoot titled “Afghan Adventure.”)

“Handicrafts have always played a vital role in defining communities and cultures as well as economic opportunities,” said Rebecca van Bergen, founder of Nest, a nonprofit focused on building an economy world of manual workers. Nest has been present in Afghanistan since 2015 and works with a network of 6,700 artisans in the country, 89% of whom are women.

“Many craft businesses in Afghanistan started and flourished after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, which shows how the empowerment of women is directly linked to economic development and cultural preservation,” said Ms. van Bergen.

In 2016, for example, Simone Cipriani, the founder of the Ethical Fashion Initiative, a program of the International Trade Commission, a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, launched a program in Afghanistan focused on the cultivation of local saffron production. and silk and executed according to the principles of the International Labor Organization. Sixty percent of the 3,500 employees are women.

This fall was to herald the start of the next stage when, in November, a major Italian luxury brand – Mr. Cipriani did not want to say which one, but admitted that it belonged to a large French group – would sell 2,000 bristles. shawls created in Afghanistan with the support of the Italian textile manufacturer Ratti (of which Louis Vuitton is one of its clients). He hoped it was a deal that would open a pipeline for future business, legitimizing Afghan crafts at the highest levels on the world stage and creating a new form of industry in the country.

In 2019, the EFI initiative also linked Jeanne de Kroon, a Dutch designer who had launched a line called Zazi Vintage, with a workshop in Afghanistan, to better recycle the country’s sumptuous textiles into extraordinary coats designed and sold by Mrs. de Kroon.

It was the same year that USAID, the United States’ international development organization, helped set up an exhibition in Milan at the Salone dei Tessuti to showcase the country’s luxury crafts (products being created partly by a network of 15,000 women). It featured a parade of four brands, including Laman, all founded by women and all dedicated to various iterations of the same mission: empowering their female base and rebuilding their country.

And that was right before Hila and Wana Limar, two Afghan sisters who immigrated with their families to Germany as young children, started planning a jewelry brand called Sevar. It was designed to sell gold and lapis designs created and purchased in Afghanistan and is based on a program to teach a trade (and business and marketing skills) to young women who drop out of high school. The first collection was due out this fall, and the first class of young women had applied and been selected to begin their apprenticeship during the fall of Kabul.

Now, like Laman, all of these initiatives are on hold, the stories they represent are whispered with fear, the women who work with them are too afraid to continue.

EFI removed all web pages related to its work in Afghanistan and issued the statement: “Until the situation becomes clearer, we have decided not to release any personally identifiable information related to our work in Afghanistan. Thank you for your understanding. ”USAID’s pages on their show in Milan have also disappeared.

“Many of our artisans have deactivated their IG accounts and requested that their names not be mentioned anywhere out of fear for their safety and that of the artisans they employ,” said Ms. van Bergen of Nest. “With women’s rights at best questioned and artisan businesses feeling the need to shut down social media accounts and websites, the economic and cultural spillovers are all in question. It’s scary.

According to Ms. de Kroon de Zazi, the government has told the country to return to work. But while male employees return to their workshops, most women stay away for fear of retaliation if they show up. Hila Limar said she received text messages every day asking for help and contacted the German government in an attempt to get names on evacuation lists. She was well aware of the fact, she said, “that I could be one of those girls. It is our responsibility to support those who have not had the chance to leave. And who now cannot.

“Someone asked me if there was hope,” said Mr. Cipriani of the Ethical Fashion Initiative. “I don’t know the answer. But there is a possibility of hope.

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