Harpers Bazaar: How Fashion Saved My Family From the Taliban

March 25, 2011

When the Taliban took over her hometown in 1996, Afghan businesswoman Kamila Sidiqi knew she had to find a way to survive. But she never expected that salvation would come from sewing dresses.

Sitting alone in her living room on a wintry afternoon only months after the Taliban swept into Kabul in 1996, nineteen year-old Kamila Sidiqi realized it was time to take action: she had to find a way to support her family. Her father, a retired Army officer who had always supported his wife and eleven children, had been pushed out of the city. Her family needed her. But what was she to do? Life for Kabul’s women had changed quickly and dramatically under the Taliban. Sadiqi and her sisters remained cooped up indoors for weeks to avoid run-ins with the “Vice and Virtue” enforcers, who had arrived with the city’s new regime. These men patrolled the capital looking for anyone breaking the strict, puritanical laws, especially women who dared to leave the house without a male chaperone or the all-enveloping burqa. A woman’s punishment for baring even an ankle or wrist in public ranged from a beating with a wooden baton to far worse, depending on the soldier’s mood.

– 3/25/2011

Turning over different business ideas in her mind, Sadiqi realized that no matter how bad the situation became for women in Afghanistan, there was one thing they would always need: dresses. Kabuli women had long pushed the fashion envelope in their conservative country, swanning through the city in smart pencil skirts, sweater sets and pointed flats in the 1960s and ‘70s. Women from the nation’s educated and elite families set the tone by pairing Parisian-inspired fashions with Afghan furs and wools. They favored dresses for family gatherings centered on the Muslim holidays of Eid, as well as for the elaborate—and expensive—weddings Afghan grooms hosted for their new brides. “There was a big demand for dresses,” says Sadiqi, who was trained as a teacher, not a seamstress. “If women had two or three wedding parties with their relatives, then they needed dresses and they wanted new ones. They did not want to wear the same dress over again, even during the Taliban times.” Sewing was one form of work Sadiqi was able do at home, a critical necessity since Taliban had banned women from working. And while fashion was forced underground and out of sight, it had hardly disappeared. Girls watched Indian films with their families at home on VCRs buried in their yards and unearthed each night. Pakistani fashion magazines were smuggled into Afghanistan and passed around the city, hidden beneath burqas. “Some shops sold these kinds of things very carefully and secretly,” Sadiqi says. “It was possible to find fashion magazines and some postcards which people brought from Pakistan, as well as movies, cassettes and CDs.”

Sadiqi launched her business with one dress: a beaded blue party frock which she sold to a shopkeeper at a bazaar near her home in Khair Khana, with her younger brother as her only chaperone. From there, her customer-base grew. Girls from the village began to come to Sadiqi’s house carrying their vision of a Bollywood actress’s outfit, pleading with her to make them a dress just like it. At shopkeepers’ requests, Sadiqi and her sisters created not only modern designs for their cosmopolitan customers, but also large tunics and roomy pants to match, the customary garb of women from the provinces. “That desire for a unique look which expresses personal style is universal, regardless of war,” Sadiqi says. Her business grew quickly, with 200 dressmakers stitching as fast as they could. At the same time, Sadiqi was literally risking her life every time she made a sale. One terrifying afternoon, while her brother was at school, Sadiqi had to venture out alone to collect money for her dresses from a shopkeeper. Suddenly the call to prayer sounded and a swarm of Vice and Virtue soldiers descended on the market, screaming, chasing and beating men and women who had not yet moved to the local mosque for prayer. “The Taliban were really angry; they had big shaloqs and were running after everyone,” Sadiqi remembers. “The whole market was afraid.” Sadiqi hid herself in a corner, praying to become invisible until the shopkeeper returned with the money she needed to pay her seamstresses. To avoid any chance she might be discovered, Sadiqi made certain never to uncover her face in public—not even on seldom-traveled side streets, and also adopted a pseudonym, Roya, so that any shopkeeper who got stopped by the Taliban could honestly say he had never seen her nor knew her real name. “The shopkeepers were also very careful,” Sadiqi says. “I worked hard to stay within the rules, but it was difficult because every minute you had to be careful—if you made a mistake you could be finished.”

But despite the harsh consequences, a few of the young dressmakers Sadiqi employed were daughters of local Taliban. Their fathers had promised to help Sadiqi stay in business as long as she followed the rules: all work remained indoors, no men, no noise, and always wear proper covering in public. Sadiqi stuck closely to the restrictions. Any girl caught speaking to men, slipping off her burqa, or laughing on the street was let go immediately. “We needed discrete people” to remain in business, Sadiqi explains. “They had to accept these rules and regulations.” Meanwhile, Sadiqi’s home became more than just a workshop—it was a sanctuary. Women could swap jokes and stories and escape from their family’s worries and their own sorrow at having lost years of their professional careers or education. “It was almost like you weren’t in Kabul; there were no problems, no war,” remembers one of Sadiqi’s seamstresses who prefers to remain anonymous. All day the girls sewed in the living room-cum-workshop, with dresses hanging from every nook, sharing lunch and listening to cassettes of famous Afghan crooners, which they played softly so no one outside could hear.

Ironically, it was actually the end of Taliban rule that marked the end of her dressmaking business. With the country once again open to imports from Pakistan and China and wealth on the rise, at least in Kabul, demand for local dresses dried up while opportunities for the young women who sewed with Sadiqi multiplied. Engineers and teachers returned to their careers while many young women headed back to school. As for Sadiqi, today she leads her own business consultancy firm, Kaweyan, which teaches entrepreneurship skills to Afghans nationwide. Though she has spent much of the last two years with her husband’s family, she remains a strong believer in her country’s possibility and plans to return. “We need a lot of time to see changes in Afghanistan,” Kamila says. Then, pausing, she adds, “But still, I have hope, a wish, for the future.”

Article in Harpersbazaar.com – 3/25/2011