Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kabulis Dress Up After a Fashion

Many young Afghans are turning to Bollywood movies for style tips – but only in the more cosmopolitan areas of the capital.
By Rahimullah Samander

Skin-tight jeans and waist-high tops with short sleeves - the very opposite of traditional Afghan dress – are sneaking into public view in Kabul as young people adopt the clothing they see in movies from India and Hollywood.


The generation of men and women in their 20s, who have known nothing but war, are going on a shopping spree to express their optimism and, perhaps, rebellion against the conservative culture that still dominates the country - though even the most fashion-conscious of women are only prepared to forgo traditional dress in relatively cosmopolitan parts of the city.


Afghans have a saying, “Dress well, eat well, and God will bless you even more.”


Trend-setting Kabulis spend the bulk of their meagre incomes on pants, tops and shoes, shopkeepers note. One pair of jeans costs 200 to 300 afghanis (around four or five US dollars) and imported outfits retail at up to 1500 afghanis – equivalent to almost a monthly salary.


One shopkeeper in Jemhoriat Market, a major centre for fashionable clothes, said, “Kabul citizens are extremists in fashion. They always save money from food and use it on clothes. And now it seems like they are turning to fashions more than they were before the war.”


Perdis Khan, who runs a store in Jemhoriat Market, laid out 12 types of jeans, each of a different brand, and gave a pitch for each one as a gaggle of female customers listened intently. He told IWPR that many young women come in carrying postcards from Hollywood and Indian films and ask for duplicates of the clothes depicted.


One girl, he said, asked for jeans with a heart on each leg bearing the name of “Pretty”, an Indian film star. Perdis ordered 280 pairs of them from Pakistan and sold every one.


Lailuma, who works in the ministry of mines and industry, said that after she pays her rent she spends the rest of her 1800 afghani salary on keeping up with fashions. “Good clothes and good style show your personality. They are the sign of civilization and culture,” she said.


But some Islamic authorities are opposed to the new trend. Mawlawi Mohammed Ayub, imam of the Baghban Bashi Mosque in Kabul, says that tight-fitting clothing is against Islam, especially for women. He cited a hadith in which the prophet said women who wear such clothing might as well be naked, and that the new fashion trend is a sign that Doomsday is near.


For women or men, spending money on frivolous items such as fashionable clothes also contravenes the Islamic faith, Ayub said. Good Muslims shouldn’t have more than three outfits, and should spend the rest of their money on basic needs – including education - for their families, he insisted.


Because of the religious condemnation, the fashionably dressed young people have to be careful where they display their new outfits. They’re safe in the classrooms of Kabul University, in the centre of the city where foreigners work and live and in neighborhoods inhabited by long-time Kabul residents - the enclaves of cosmopolitan thinking. There, they don’t have to worry about their reputation.


Outside of these places, even the most fashion-conscious women still cover up with a large scarf or a burqa. And for visits to the family village, women turn back to the sharwar kamis, the modest, comfortable outfit of baggy pants and long, loose tunic that is traditional - and still predominant - for Afghans.


Modesty in Afghanistan, for both men and women, means covering the entire body from neck to foot in clothing that does not reveal any of the body’s curvature. Exposing any skin on the legs draws hostile stares. So, while women have adopted tight jeans, even in the heat of summer, they still wear pants under any skirts that don’t sweep the floor.


With shirts there’s room for a little more flexibility, it seems. Instead of mid-thigh, they rise to the waist, and the daring bare their arms - unthinkable less than two years ago, for both men and women, under the Taleban regime.


In the progressive Sixties and early Seventies, women in Kabul went about with heads uncovered, and donned miniskirts and other fashions from Europe. But even then, some condemned those with short skirts because they assumed they weren’t wearing underwear - Afghans tend not to wear anything under their sharwar kamis.


Now the fashions follow the trade routes - with clothes from China, India, Pakistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan. Although tailors who can copy any piece of clothing from a photo or drawing abound in Kabul, the markets don’t usually have the right fabric, shoppers say.


Nargis, a student at Kabul University, wandered through the market to find an elastic top and close-fitting jeans like the ones she wore in Germany, where she lived for 15 years. She got used to those types of clothes hiking in Germany and working as a taxi driver.


Abdu Shakoor, owner of another shop in Jemhoriat Market, says he’s noticed the fashions are changing very rapidly. “A few months ago, Kabul girls liked colored jeans, but now girls and boys both like new types of jeans with stamped patterns, and girls really like elastic jeans that cling to the body.”


Parents and children aren’t immune from the fashion craze, either. Najiba, a 38-year-old high school teacher, chose a skirt and blouse outfit in Tashkent style for her 8-year-old daughter - but the little girl turned up her nose, saying she preferred pants and a top. Najiba, however, refuses to wear jeans or pants of any type.


Hairstyles from Europe and from the still-popular movie “Titanic” are in fashion. Women have adopted braids, twists, chignons and even perms, while men favour German and military hairstyles.


And inch by inch women are exposing more of their hair, wearing smaller, looser scarves or even letting them fall off their head onto their shoulders.


Rahimullah Samander is a local editor and staff reporter for IWPR in Kabul.


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