Anyone who claims that fashion isn’t serious has not met Zolaykha Sherzad.
Originally from Afghanistan, Sherzad and her family fled the country during the Soviet occupation. After returning in 2002, the thoughtful, well-spoken Sherzad became involved in several developmental and educational projects to revive the country, including founding School of Hope, a non-proft which rebuilt schools in rural Afghanistan.
But soon, she was inspired to help the country’s women more directly, and she launched a new venture: Zarif Design. The fashion company designs and produces clothing in Kabul, employing the skills of local Afghan women and using fabrics original to Afghanistan.
Sherzad’s mission is twofold. After decades of war, many Afghan traditions have disappeared or are in danger of being lost. By using traditional Afghan fabrics and handiwork, Zarif Design has helped revitalize these crafts, while also helping them find a place in the modern world.
What’s more, the company has created business opportunities for Afghan women, who have extremely limited access to higher education. Nonetheless, these women need to learn technical skills if they’re going to secure job opportunities. By creating jobs for women, helping them acquire new skills, and linking them to profitable markets, Sherzad hopes that her company will have a sustainable impact on the war-torn country.
We sat down with Sherzad to find out more about her work and hear her hope that women will be the force behind rebuilding her home country.
What inspired you to start Zarif Designs?
My main idea was to give back to Afghanistan. I am originally an architect, and I began to notice a loss of cultural identity in Afghanistan’s architecture. You could see a lot of Coca-Cola on the streets and Pakistani-style buildings. Nothing was Afghan.
Also, in 2002, there were lots of children and women in the street begging. Unemployment was high . There was the physical destruction of buildings, but also a deeper sense of social destruction. People had lost pride and a sense of identity.
I was doing some work with teachers at the time. When I saw them doing craft workshops and candle-making, I realized that I could do more than just fundraise for schools. I could help these teachers improve their designs, and through them, make Afghan culture and products more identifiable and marketable.
So my passion became not just for helping women, but for working with them directly. The idea was not to do something that was a copy of the past, but to use traditional skills to make something modern and original. I wanted to help shape the future, and to shape a new group of women who have skills, economic power, and a safe place to work.
What challenges did you face as a female entrepreneur in Afghanistan?
In Afghanistan, being a woman and running a business is difficult. The buyers, managers, textile producers, weavers, most of the people I spoke with were men. I counteracted this by employing women—60% of my staff are women and 40% are men. It’s important to put men and women together professionally and creatively to dispel the issue of gender .
Security is another issue. As a woman, you cannot travel by yourself or walk alone in the streets. The streets and the bazaars are dominated by men. In that sense, there’s less freedom to be outside of the perimeter of your house and your work. When I do work, I’ll usually go with a man.
Under the Taliban, women were absolutely not allowed to go anywhere by themselves. But now, there are groups of girls going to school by themselves. I’m keeping my hopes alive for more of this change in Afghanistan.
What is the current role of women in Afghanistan?
Despite the image we have of women in Afghanistan being shuttered in the house, women are the core of the family in Afghan society. The role of the woman has always been very important. I remember my grandmother being in complete control of the house, the money, everything. But during 30 years of war, there has been tremendous damage to women’s rights.
How do you see the role of Afghan women changing?
War destroys a society, and women will need to play a significant role in peace-building. Many men have lost their work, scholars and educated people have left Afghanistan, and young boys are more likely to become part of the guerilla forces or the Taliban because of the lack of employment and economic means.
There has been a lot of military investment, a lot of trying to bring peace through war. Maybe this is important on a certain level—but there’s way too much of building war and not enough of building society right now. But the more we empower women —educationally, economically, and health-wise—the more we build society.
What are your plans for the future, and your plans for your company?
Our main market has been in Kabul, Afghanistan. But the prices were high, so I’m trying to build up a new collection that reaches out to local women. We want to open up an international market , not only to sustain production, but also awareness on a global level.
Also, our collection was recently shown at [high-end fashion retailer] Agnes B., which has been really positive encouragement for the company. In Kabul, the collection will be represented under the umbrella of an achieved, well-known designer. We’re going to try to keep building more textile factories and employing more people, so we can sustain and develop several sectors through our business.
To learn more about Zolaykha Sherzad and Zarif Design, visit ZarifDesign.com.