‘Do Not Touch My Clothes’: Afghans call out Taliban dress codes by posing in traditional attire

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LONDON —
Afghan women in Canada and around the world are posing in colourful traditional dresses online to hit back against the Taliban’s strict new clothing requirements for women in schools.

Based on their interpretation of sharia law, the Taliban has recently ordered all classrooms to be segregated based on gender, and mandated that all female students and teachers wear hijabs. On Saturday, photos on social media even showed a group of female students covered entirely in long black robes and waving Taliban flags in the government-run university in Kabul.

But many with Afghan heritage in Canada say their own traditional clothing looks nothing like that.

“That’s not who we are,” Neelo Mansuri, an Afghan-Canadian activist and law student in Toronto, said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca.

“The people in the Taliban regime have taken religion and exported it into something that is completely despicable,” she said. “Afghanistan is a country of colour. Not this long, black, grim Dementor-like clothing, if I can make a Harry Potter reference.”

Mansuri is among thousands of Afghans who are sharing photos of themselves in vibrant, multi-coloured ceremonial clothing, using the hashtags #DoNotTouchMyClothes and #AfghanistanCulture.

While every tribe and region are unique, traditional attire is known for its intricate, hand-stitched embroidery; detailed headpieces; long pleated skirts; and fabric lined with bells, beads and tiny mirrors — all of which stand out when people twirl in a traditional dance called the “attan.”

“Black shrouds do not represent Afghan culture,” Dr. Fatima Kakkar, who teaches pediatrics at the University of Montreal, said in an email to CTVNews.ca. She wore a lime green dress with an embroiled purple top in her tweeted photo.

“It’s important the world sees what traditional Afghan clothes really are. Their beauty, the workmanship, the vibrant colors represent the country and its heritage,” said Kakkar. “Every Afghan woman I know cherishes their traditional Afghan dress and wears it with pride. So it was important to reinforce that that visually.”

Mansuri explained that a lot of traditional clothing people in diaspora wear comes directly from female embroiderers in Afghanistan. She called the social media campaign a small but public way to “stand in solidarity” with the women facing oppression and growing restrictions in Afghanistan.

FORMER AFGHAN HISTORY TEACHER STARTED IT ALL

The online avalanche of photos began on Saturday when Bahar Jalali, a former history professor at the American University in Afghanistan, tweeted a photo of herself in a bright, green Afghan dress with flowers embroidered onto a red backdrop.

She posted it used the hashtag #AfghanistanCulture, and the next day, she used #DoNotTouchMyClothes for another photo of herself. “We will not let our culture to be appropriated by those who want to erase us,” she wrote.

In the days that followed, many Afghans, mostly women, followed her lead on Twitter and Instagram.

“This campaign reflects resilience, identity and defiance against an unelected, imposed rule,” Toronto-area based Afghan activist Mina Sharif told CTVNews.ca in an email.

“Clothes are not a priority in a country facing what Afghanistan is at the risk of experiencing, but they are a universal symbol of expression and we deserve to reflect our identity.”

Sharif was raised in Canada but started a girl’s mentorship program in Afghanistan and worked with women-led radio stations from 2005 to 2019.

“I met strong powerful women urban and rural communities — modestly, colourfully dressed women in a variety of culturally diverse designs,” she said. In the past 20 years, aspects of more ceremonial attire have ended up in light headscarves, jeans and everyday clothing of women going to work in offices or schools.

“We ask the world to remember we are a people who deserve to live on our own terms and speak for ourselves.”

PHOTOS MUST ALSO CALL FOR GOV’T ACTION: ADVOCATES

“There’s an apparent ethnic and cultural cleansing that’s taking place in Afghanistan right now,” Tahmina Aziz, an Victoria-based journalist and member of the Canadian Campaign for Afghan Peace (CCAP), told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.

“The beautiful, diverse tapestry that we had is disappearing day by day,” she said. “Afghanistan is known for its poetry, for its food, its sport, its art, and music… and we’ve seen these heartbreaking images of instruments being destroyed and woman being partially banned from sports.”

Aziz posted a photo of herself in a white and red embroidered dress to help bring attention to the work she and advocates have been doing for months.

She and CCAP have been pushing the Canadian government to broaden the special immigration program to help resettle more Afghans, provide more immediate humanitarian aid, and advocate for protecting the rights of women and ethnic and religious minorities.

In recent weeks, political science experts and Afghan families in Canada have also noted that many ethnic minorities, particularly Hazara Afghans and Sikh and Hindu populations, are at risk of persecution and even death if they remain in Afghanistan. Some have attempted to flee but many remain trapped in the country.

Although federal party leaders in Canada have made various pledges regarding Afghanistan, Mansuri hopes campaigns like #DoNotTouchMyClothes help keep Afghanistan top of mind well after the election.

“Afghan people today have made so many contributions to the social fabric of Canada, whether it be through education, work or otherwise,” she said.

“So it’s not just a crisis for the Afghan people, but it’s a crisis for everybody around the world.”

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