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For Afghan women, fashion and crafts offer a work lifeline

‘Over the last 20 years, so many women entered the workforce, and they still haven’t lost their passion, even amid all these restrictions.’

Pictured is a woman sat down and sewing a pattern with yellow thread onto a white fabric. She is wearing a polka-dot head-covering and flower-pattern clothes. Ali M Latifi/TNH
A woman, who preferred to remain anonymous, sews a garment in western Herat province. Afghan women are known for their skilled embroidery but only receive a fraction of the profits when clothes are sold for hundreds of dollars in city markets.

Restrictions on women working – and record unemployment – make it difficult to create opportunities in Afghanistan, but the British-Afghan designer Marina Khan has taken on the challenge to employ more of the country’s female artisans. 


“I’ve always wanted to work with Afghan women, but there was always a barrier,” Khan told The New Humanitarian from Dubai, where her brand Avizeh is currently based. 


Her efforts to recruit Afghan producers took on a new urgency after the Taliban-led government restricted women’s activities: Less than two weeks after taking control in August 2021, the government instructed female public sector workers to stay at home.


Khan has been working with male artisans in Afghanistan since she started the clothing and jewellery brand in 2014, but she says she has had great difficulty speaking directly to Afghan women, who are known for their hand embroidery and beading work.


“Many times, a lot of women would be so afraid to speak to me,” Khan said. “The fact is that men have much more control, and often, even when you’re trying to work with a woman, a man will be at the forefront.”


In recent months, the Islamic Emirate issued decrees banning Afghan women from working for NGOs and the United Nations. While some NGOs were also able to secure exemptions for their female staff, and female workers of the Health, Education and Interior Ministries have so far been permitted to stay on the job, the employment prospects of women have been severely restricted. This week, reports emerged that the Taliban has given international organisations a one-month deadline to transfer all their educational work over to under-resourced local groups.


At the same time, international sanctions, banking restrictions, and reductions in aid targeted at the Taliban have fuelled an economic downturn and the loss of more than 700,000 jobs since the summer of 2021. According to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, two thirds of Afghanistan’s 40 million people will require assistance this year, with some $2.26 billion needed to address those needs.


Artisans who rely on affluent Afghans to purchase their crafts have reported a precipitous decline in sales, and private sector workers are struggling to find employment as many companies have downsized or closed.


The economic struggles are visible on the streets of Afghanistan’s cities, which are full of women begging outside bakeries or selling used clothing, household trinkets, and packaged food goods from carts they push along congested roads.


“Their husbands don’t work either, so they are all making a living off their handiwork.”


Others have crossed into Pakistan, a country of some 230 million that has one of the world’s lowest female employment rates, at just 22%, limiting the options of Afghan women seeking work. Even registered refugees are legally forbidden from working. The Pakistani government has also cracked down on Afghan refugees, restricting their movements and deporting them. More than 1,000 Afghans are currently being detained.


Khan has begun tapping Pakistani female artisans, and also Afghan refugees there, who now have the opportunity to support their families in both countries. 


“Most of these women didn’t come from much, even in Afghanistan,” Khan said. And many face significant challenges at home, including one Afghan artisan she connected with who has two disabled children who require expensive medical care.


“Their husbands don’t work either, so they are all making a living off their handiwork,” she added.


Since her customers are abroad, Khan’s sales have not been hit by the economic decline in Afghanistan, and her buyers are very eager to help Afghans, particularly women.


When she announced her initiative in April, Khan was inundated with messages of support from Afghans around the world. Many people messaged her about the designs – two dresses that took four months of hand sewing and embroidery – but also about how customers can help the 45 women artisans based in Quetta.


The dresses retail from 245 to 500 euros on the Avizeh web site, and Khan says she builds in enough margin so that the craftswomen can earn several times more than their male counterparts for each design. 


Khan hopes to include products made in Afghanistan over the next year. Avizeh also sells men’s wear and jewellery on its site.


She is partnering with the UK-based charity, Mothers of Afghanistan, to lay the groundwork for partnerships with women in the provinces of Nangarhar, Paktia, and Kabul. The organisation currently runs sewing schools in the cities of Kabul and Jalalabad, which they hope will eventually make products for Avizeh.


Cutting out the middleman

For those working inside Afghanistan already, the challenges of keeping their businesses going have mounted. Asila Sadaat, who started her Kabul-based brand of traditional women’s clothing, Qanawiz, in 2017, says the women who continue to work in Afghanistan are the exception.


Women who work outside the home often face pressure and questions from Islamic Emirate authorities.


“They will come and ask ‘who is working here, what do they do, why are [women] working alongside men,’” said Sadaat. These suspicions have led many workplaces to enforce gender segregation policies, while others will tell their female staff to work from home. Those changes often come with additional expenses for businesses that are already struggling to survive.


“The men were taking the money while the women were doing all the hard work behind the scenes.”


On the Qanawiz website, there are simple dresses for girls for as little as $7 to $10, and elaborate handmade ceremonial and traditional women’s dresses for about $400 up to almost $900. It also offers men’s clothing, lapis goods, small crafts, art, and handmade wooden products.


Since most artisanal and craftwork takes place in the home, these women do not face any limitations from the Islamic Emirate or other more traditional religious and local leaders in Afghanistan. 


There are entrepreneurs across the country taking advantage of the lack of restrictions on private businesses employing women. The western city of Herat now has three women-only markets that feature products from women-run local businesses. Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of the northern province of Balkh, has also opened its own female-operated market. In Kabul, a recent government-sanctioned exhibition of Afghan-made products featured a number of businesses run by or employing women. 


Khan hopes that her international customer base will serve as a bridge to connect smaller local female entrepreneurs and artisans to more high-end businesses like hers, but she knows that expanding such collaborations will take effort on both sides. She says even during the rule of the former Western-backed Islamic Republic, reaching women, especially in rural areas, was not easy. 


Some women, said Khan, do not have access to mobile phones and social media, which would allow them to directly interact with potential customers.


For instance, women in the villages of Herat and Kandahar, two provinces known for their detailed embroidery work, will spend weeks, even months, hand stitching intricate collars and sleeves onto traditional menswear. 


But because few feel comfortable bargaining with men in the bustling markets of the cities, it's men who will then go and sell that work, sometimes for up to hundreds of dollars. 


“The women are dependent on the men to get their work to market,” Khan said.


The women themselves will only make about $20 to $40 for pieces that can take hundreds of hours to complete. These women, who often live isolated in simple mud homes and have to provide for their large families, are susceptible to exploitation, according to Khan.


“The men were taking the money while the women were doing all the hard work behind the scenes,” she said.


This year, Khan set out to cut out the middleman.


“I posted something on Twitter and one [female] follower connected me to other women, who connected me to other women, and it just went on,” Khan said. She was able to connect to 45 Afghan and Pakistani women in Quetta. 


Sadaat said that since so many of her customers were government employees inside Afghanistan, her brand has felt the squeeze from the economic downturn. The majority of the women, who have kept their jobs on paper, have been told they will continue to be paid without any expectation of work, so long as they stay at home. These stay-at-home policies have impacted everything from stores selling knockoff Vuitton and Balenciaga in multi-storey malls to secondhand sellers in traditional markets and more high-end, handmade brands like Sadaat’s.


But like their male counterparts, who are expected to report to work, female government workers are being paid a fraction of their former salaries because of the economic crisis, which means less disposable income.


Sadaat decided to use her brand, along with NGO partnerships, to train some 40 women over the last year; many of those women were able to start their own businesses after the six-month training program. 


“Over the last 20 years, so many women entered the workforce, and they still haven’t lost their passion, even amid all these restrictions,” Sadaat said. The women trained included former government workers, university students who are barred from studying, and teachers at girls’ high schools that have closed.


As long as such ventures are allowed, local and international companies should enable talented women, many of whom are the sole household breadwinners, to continue to “work up to their potential”, Sadaat said, adding: “I am very fortunate that even amid all of these setbacks, I have been able to put other women to work in Afghanistan.”


Edited by Abby Seiff and Tom Brady.

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