Armed with needle and thread, the fashion designer saving tradition from the Taliban

Marina Khan is battling to preserve the country’s rich heritage

Meet the fashion designer celebrating the colours of Afghanistan

Meet the fashion designer celebrating the colours of Afghanistan
Powered by automated translation

Marina Khan, a member of Afghanistan’s diaspora, is fighting the Taliban in her own way, as she battles to preserve the country’s rich heritage from a history that has been long since buried.

Her fashion and jewellery brand Avizeh, which was founded in London but is now based in Dubai, aims to resurrect styles worn by women in a country once awash with colour.

In doing so Ms Khan, 31, also hopes to change the image of the country from being one of oppression and war, to showcase the beauty and diversity that existed centuries before the rise of the Taliban.

“The current narrative is mainly associated with war and Afghan women are not very strong,” she told The National.

“There’s not much colour within Afghanistan or diversity. And it’s one block image of how oppressed Afghanistan is and there is one look.

“But Afghanistan is shaded with so many colours and so much history, culture, which dates back thousands of years. And that’s what I want to show through my work. All the colours of Afghanistan.”

Ms Khan began her business more than seven years ago, when she was in the last year studying at Royal Holloway, University of London, to become a psychologist. She is still in the profession.

She had no plans to do anything else at the time but fashion found her, she said.

“I was in my room one day when I was young, 21 years old, and I had a few Afghan rings.

“I had to go to an Afghan wedding. I was looking online and thought there must be clothing online and jewellery, and I really couldn’t find anything.

“There was this one shop in, I think, the US and it was selling really outdated clothing. And I was like, how is this possible?”

Ms Khan, who was born and raised in the UK, made some other rings in the Afghan style and put them on Facebook. They sold within days.

“I had no expectations,” she said. “I didn’t know how to start a business. With that I started to grow and people got to know about me. And here I am today.”

At first she worked with men, because women were hard to contact.

But in the past year she has been working with a group of 40 female Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, with whom a contact on X, formerly Twitter, helped to put her in touch.

“These women, it’s very hard to get access to them, because men are in the forefront and the culture is very conservative, and most of the time they would take the money,” Ms Khan said.

“So I wanted the opportunity to give them the money and have direct contact with them. It took a very long time, a number of years, but I finally got there.”

The women make the brand’s clothes, which consist of ornate, long modest dresses, often accompanied by trousers, in colours, designs and stitching inspired by Afghanistan’s many tribes.

The women are paid directly for their work.

Dresses typically cost upwards of £250 a piece, and are mainly bought by Afghans living overseas.

“We charge extra for the dresses so they can make more money than people who would normally make dresses, who would be men,” Ms Khan said.

“This is one of the ways we are supporting them to make sustainable options, rather than giving charity.”

The women are refugees and have very little means to support their families, she said.

“Their beadwork and craftsmanship is amazing. I give them the opportunity where they can have access to customers.

“We work together like a unit, a family.”

All jewellery and clothing sold by the company is made by Afghans, some of whom, like the group of women, are now abroad.

Ms Khan said the women were disadvantaged long before the Taliban takeover of 2021, which took place almost two years ago to the day.

Women’s rights have been significantly eroded since, with bans on girls’ education beyond sixth grade and work, erasing 20 years of progress.

Because much of Afghanistan’s history has been lost or buried, research can be challenging. Ms Khan relies on other members of the community and even researchers at university to influence her work.

The dresses are inspired by traditional designs, often with modern twists, just one of many styles that Afghan women have worn over the decades. It is a fact often lost on many people.

A video she created to show how fashion has changed in Afghanistan went viral, because many had no idea women used to live there so freely.

Women banned from university education in Afghanistan – in pictures

The video begins in the 18th century with traditional styles that inspire her work, moving to the 1930s, when the country was ruled by King Amanullah Khan and Queen Consort Soraya Tarzi, who played a major role in reforms that led to the emancipation of women.

The video then flashes forward to the 1960s with a style that would not have looked out of place in any western capital, before moving to blue chadari, which covers the head and face, and beyond.

“I made that video because the stereotype people had of Afghanistan was that it had always been the same,” Ms Khan said. “Women had always worn burqas and been covered up.

“I wanted to show people that fashion has always existed. The video shows the traditional beauty and then the '60s, when people were modern.

“And then you go on to the Russian occupation and see how things change for people. So I wanted to connect to emotion and what people felt as well.

“And then we move on to the Taliban regime and fashion just kind of cuts down. After a few years I showed the voting rights.

“And then the last one is how Afghanistan has been forgotten and the jewellery has been appropriated and is being worn in festivals like Coachella.”

Despite what has happened, Ms Khan is hopeful that one day women in Afghanistan will again be offered the opportunities she has extended to the group of refugees with whom she works in Pakistan.

“I hope the world doesn’t forget about Afghanistan. There are still people there who need aid and support.

“And I also hope the rest of the world accepts them, whether they are refugees or diaspora, and appreciates them as humans.”

Updated: August 05, 2023, 5:42 AM