Women in Afghanistan are using some of the country’s oldest traditions in an effort to rebuild its global image.
April 12, 2010 4:59 by Helena Malikyar
The project, with a modest initial investment of $20,000, quickly developed into a successful business that now caters to high-end boutiques in New York, Milan, London, and Dubai. Zarif (which means “delicate” in Persian) Design employs 52 people in Afghanistan, of whom 60 percent are women. Indirectly, the company provides employment for silk weavers and subcontracts embroidery work to women working from home. The work of Zarif Design has also had broad-reaching effects on traditional folkloric Afghan arts and crafts.
“Using and bringing back a textile – the Chapan – that was solely used by men is the most successful part of this project,” says Zolaykha. “This colored, silk textile is now used by other designers for bags and other products. It has opened up a larger market and widened the concept of equality between genders as I am mainly using it for women’s jackets.”
The launch of the project was hampered by logistical challenges, such as the shortage of electricity, lack of resources, and the difficulty in finding qualified, committed tailors and embroiderers.
“One of the biggest problems is to reconstitute the entire chain of production. As a clothes designer, I thought I could just produce my design, but I quickly realized that I also needed to help produce the raw material, as the traditional woven silk was not being produced anymore,” says Zolaykha, a cousin of the late king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah. “We also had to find export routes, rebuild galleries where to exhibit and sell, buy generators to produce our own electricity, and organize workshops to train the staff.”
Hassina Sherjan is an Afghan-American who had been active in providing education for girls in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. In 2004 she launched Boumi (which means “indigenous”) with start-up capital of $200,000.
Not unlike Zarif Design, Boumi’s accessories for the house (such as tableware, curtains, and cushion covers) combine Afghan styles with contemporary designs, and utilize traditional Afghan embroidery techniques.