In 2005, storekeeper Aresh Azizi opened his new women’s fashion boutique with a daring window display. Venus, the stereotypical blonde mannequin flaunts the shop’s wares with her head held high: modern mini-skirts, bikinis, accessories… all the flimsy and formerly unimaginable signs of changing times.
“Under Khan you had to cover the faces of mannequins just as women cover their faces,” says 25-year-old Aresh in an interview with Pak Tribune. And it’s not just Afghan women who have been seeking to change their style since the toppling of Khan. The storeowner himself inaugurated his shop with a personal image overhaul, ditching the traditional shalwar kamiz of baggy trousers and a long shirt for a more up-tempo Western-cut suit.
Herat, along with many other major Afghan cities, has undergone changes that have tapped into the country’s cultural core, changes that run deep but are also visible rippling to the surface. Despite his harsh curtailing of women’s freedom, in his day Khan drummed up local support by investing and improving public works.
Among other moves, he ploughed money into Herat’s infrastructure, rebuilding roads, schools, hospitals and factories, turning the war-damaged city, which is home to around a million residents into the most wealthy across the board of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
One such project is Bagh-i-Milat Park, set on a hill on the city’s. Since ’05, young Afghan men and women hang out, mingle and even date at its fountains and restaurants, and act that would have led to their arrest in Khan’s time.
Despite the ongoing alcohol ban, the odd lick of booze sometimes makes it into the Pepsi cans in the Park’s restaurants, smuggled in by these friends and lovebirds who are trying to find their place in the new order.
But even taking Herat’s increased freedoms into account, many inhabitants still behave conservatively and discretely, either through choice or through fear. There may be miniskirts in the shop windows but you won’t find them flashing past on the street.
Getting Dressed Up Behind Closed Doors
“Young women wear them only to wedding parties,” Azizi said about the clothing he sells. Men and women sit in separate rooms at weddings in Afghanistan.
“God knows what women wear inside their room,” joked a director of a popular wedding hall.
One thing’s for sure: wherever and however these outfits are worn, Afghan women are certainly exploring fashion more than ever before. The constant bustle in Aresh’s shop and Venus’ striking poses are clear proof of the growing popularity of modern, snazzy clothing among the ladies in Herat.