Designers work for months on collections that leggy, Amazon women will showcase on catwalks during international fashion weeks. But while most models have only one mission when walking down a runway (to not fall), women presenting collections in places like Kabul have other concerns, like fearing for their lives.
However, despite the dangers of presenting the latest and greatest, and all without a burqa, one group of Afghan women have looked fear in the face and realized fashion can be part self-expression and part activism.
Young Women for Change, an independent nonprofit organization based in Kabul, Afghanistan, recently put on their own fashion show, not at Lincoln Center or under the lights of Milan, but in a small, candlelit house.
Anita Haidary, cofounder of Young Women for Change, says even though some attendees could not accept women showcasing the fashions, open events like her runway show are creating new activist platforms and discussions within the community about how women are seen.
“The reason behind this fashion show was to promote women’s business, women’s clothing through women designers and tailors,” says Haidary. “Young Women for Change wanted to support women in business because we believe that grassroots efforts that support women in becoming financially independent can lead to the greater empowerment of Afghan women.”
The group, cofounded by Haidary and Noorjahan Akbar, consists of dozens of volunteer women and male advocates across Afghanistan who are committed to empowering Afghan women through social and economic participation, political empowerment, awareness and advocacy.
For the women involved in Young Women for Change, having a unified voice is also a way for them to contribute to rebuilding a new Afghanistan. Haidary says part of rebuilding is connecting Afghan women to alternative ways they can get their traditional clothing, allowing them to bypass all the clothing imports from Pakistan, China and Iran—because even Afghans believe in shopping locally.
“This is also directly connected to our first campaign against harassment. Women are not only harassed on the street but also in shops, markets, and tailor shops run by men,” says Haidary. “There are countless stories detailing the harassment in tailoring shops while noting measurement. Furthermore, they have to go through this harassment because they have no other options because there are very few women tailors due to lack of skills, education and funds.”
Shannon Galpin, National Geographic Adventurer of the Year and founder of Mountain2Mountain, a nonprofit for women in conflict regions, says Kabul is a unique city for women. Galpin says the women of the YWC are courageous to take up the fight for their rights as publicly as they do, marching in the streets to protest sexual harassment, and creating the first women’s Internet cafe in Kabul.
“You now have women attending Kabul University, working in all levels of government, and seeing women in the streets walking to school or work among men is normal,” Galpin says. “It becomes a great incubator for activists and feminists to take on the fight in the country’s capital and set an example to the rest of their country.”
Galpin adds, “It starts with voice and the willingness to take a stand, to risk your safety, because the alternative is to sit by and watch as your rights are systematically taken away unchallenged.”
Post-fashion show, Haidary and the Young Women for Change meet safely behind closed doors at their Internet café which serves as a haven for area women to interact and discuss challenges, projects, and of course, where to get the latest designs. There they plan their next move as young women challenging the norm and a sexism that makes them work even harder.
“It is good to do something rather not doing anything,” Haidary says. “Women cannot achieve what they want if they don’t work for it.”