Many brave women have entered civil society in Afghanistan as businesspersons, educators and politicians since the Taliban were pushed out of Kabul by NATO-led forces. Few, however, have done it more beautifully than Zolaykha Sherzad, the founder of Zarif Design in Kabul. (Zarif means ‘precious’ in the Dari language.) Sherzad is part of a dynamic cohort that is showing what can be done when educated women are freed from an oppressive patriarchy.
Afghanistan-born Sherzad was a teenager when her family fled the country in the 1980s during the Soviet Union invasion. She became a professor of architecture in New York and attended New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Sherzad returned to Afghanistan in 2000 to open School of Hope in Ghazni province, one of the few areas not under Taliban rule at the time. Smitten by the richness of Afghan culture, Sherzad began collecting fabrics and bought traditional pieces of clothing from the marketplace. “I recut, reshaped and recreated 20 pieces for a pilot fashion show,” says the slight, dark-haired 44-year-old. The positive response to that first exhibit led to the creation of Zarif Design in 2005. Soon, Sherzad’s clothes were being sold internationally at agnès b. stores in Paris, New York and London and worn by people like Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. Sherzad continues to use Afghanistan textiles and embroidery accessories like buttons cast from ancient Persian coins.
For Sherzad, Zarif Design is a way to connect the rich cultural past to Afghanistan’s dynamic future. While conservative forces in Afghanistan still oppose women’s independence, Sherzad bridges this vast gulf, showing that the past can be amalgamated with the present to create something new and beautiful that enriches the nation’s economy by providing good-paying work for women. Sherzad employs many Kabul housewives, educating them in the art of clothing design. They are like family, and create suits, jackets, evening gowns and wedding dresses on Singer sewing machines in the cozy cottages surrounding Sherzad’s main office, where she keeps sample racks for visitors. Sherzad has also created a ready-to-wear clothing line, introducing the Afghan public to the concept of sizes—a radical shift for a people who have always worn tailor-made garments.
Sherzad’s fashion house is sublime, and a subtle assertion that the new Afghanistan is a place of equality for women. One of her most creative designs is hand-woven silk dress with tiny, precise rows of accordion pleats that follow the body’s shape yet hides it, mimicking the burqa’s mystery. “The burqa is thought of as repressive,” yet, under Sherzad’s creative control, is transformed into a thing of beauty while remaining a symbol of female piety and modesty — a small but defiant act in Afghanistan’s gender wars.