How two Afghan fashion designers are preserving the country's heritage in their work

Anjilla Seddeqi and Hosna Kohestani fear, however, that their work with Afghan female artisans could be upended by the return of the Taliban

When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan this month, it upended the lives of Afghans living in and outside of the country.

Some have escaped the country while others, watching from the outside, are left wondering what will happen to their homeland once the dust settles.

Among them are Anjilla Seddeqi and Hosna Kohestani, two fashion designers who incorporate their heritage into their work.

Seddeqi was 7 years old when her family fled Afghanistan – and the Taliban – for Australia in 1989. Although she has never returned, her thoughts remain with the country she left as a child.

“I have heard incredible stories about Afghanistan," Seddeqi tells The National. "I yearn to go back one day with my two children.”

Inspired by her own experiences as a child, Seddeqi studied international law before joining the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to work with asylum seekers. After years working as a human rights lawyer, she decided to reconnect with her Afghan heritage, turning to fashion as a platform to bring the colours and patterns of her culture to a wider audience.

"I am very passionate about refugees, given my background and experience, and it was my dream as a little girl to practise refugee law so that I could help them," Seddeqi explains.

“My designs are informed by my Afghan heritage and culture. I mainly work with rich fabrics like brocades with gold threadwork and embroidered silk fabrics, as well as vibrant colours, as this is synonymous with Afghan celebrations and attire.”

Shining a light on Afghan culture is an important part of Seddeqi's work, to counter what she feels is a narrow view of her country.

“For far too long the narrative in the West has been that Afghanistan is perpetually at war and in conflict. But Afghanistan and its people are more than that and we are not defined by the relentless violence. We are a proud, cultured and hospitable people and that is what I want to shine upon in my designs.”

Mixing traditional elements with a more western aesthetic, Seddeqi's pieces speak to women looking for clothes beyond the standard fare, while helping to cement her own commitment to her country.

“It provides me with a sense of connection to my roots. There's a lot to learn from our traditional Afghan dresses, [they are] a masterclass on mixing colours, patterns and textures."

Khoestani is also sharing her culture with the wider world. With a shop in Dubai, her colourful designs are known for their traditional cuts, dazzling tones and rich gold embroidery. Her gowns are often photographed against the rugged beauty of Hatta Dam, because, as she has previously said, it "reminds me of Afghanistan".

With the return of the Taliban, however, both women have concerns for the future, particularly for women in the country. Seddeqi remains unconvinced by assurances that there will be no violence or reprisals.

“I think Afghans have a really good grasp of what the Taliban are about after experiencing firsthand the terror they unleashed on the population when they gained power in 1996. Most Afghan women are too terrified to leave their homes. Ultimately, the women and children in Afghanistan will pay the highest price,” Seddeqi says.

This view is echoed by Kohestani. "It's definitely a hard time for all of us Afghans."

The trimmings and embroidery that feature so heavily in both women's designs come from Afghanistan, providing a vital source of income for the women who make them, and a degree of financial independence. Whether this can continue under the Taliban remains to be seen.

While the long-term effects could be detrimental to both designers' work, Kohestani's thoughts are with her countrywomen.

"It will definitely impact me as an Afghan designer," she says, "but right now I am more concerned about my country."

Seddeqi, too, fears rights have been swept away. Unable to reach her suppliers, she is worried for not only their livelihoods but also their safety.

“It has been very difficult to get in touch with them since the Taliban has gained power. I will continue to explore different contacts and avenues to get in touch with them. My hope is that I can continue to work with them and support them during these dark times."

To help raise awareness, as well as funds for the UNCHR, Seddeqi is helping to sell Arezu dolls in Australia. Translating as "wish" from Dari, the mostly widely spoken language in Afghanistan, they are made from discarded fabric by Afghan refugees in India.

"They are created with love, hope and a wish for a brighter future for the women and children of Afghanistan," Seddeqi says.

She says she feels compelled to act.

“As an Afghan woman living in the diaspora, it is my duty and calling to raise awareness about the plight of my sisters in Afghanistan. I simply cannot rest in this position of privilege knowing how much they are suffering."

Updated: August 25th 2021, 4:42 AM