TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Afghan Hands: Fashion Meets Economic Development in Kabul

Afghan Hands, and embroidery project, 
works with women in Kabul and Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

A friend of mine sent me an email about a BBC challenge which will award $20.000 plus publicity to a group that shows innovation and economic development at a grass roots level.  One of the groups nominated for these awards is Afghan Hands, an embroidery project that works with women in Afghanistan:

Afghan Hands was started by Matin Maulawizada, native of Kabul who has found great success in the fashion world as a make-up artist and as a cosmetics science expert for Neutrogena.  As I clicked around the website and blog, I was struck that Matin is one of the rare souls who can gracefully breach this immense divide our world suffers between the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate, the wasteful and the hungry.  How many of us can truly walk between these two worlds and both retain a sense of dignity while embracing the humanity of such different social situations?  It appears that Matin has this gift.  His writing is humble and honest and his vision for the women in Afghanistan is both realistic and empathetic.  Here is how he describes the mission of Afghan Hands:

Afghan Hands teaches skills to help Afghan widows gain independence, literacy, and a livable wages. At our centers in and around Kabul, women learn to create embroidered shawls and scarves, and the exquisite embroidery they make connects them to a wider world.

The centers are places to gather, study, and work. We pay the women to attend classes in the morning and embroider in the afternoon. Without this project, they could not educate themselves. Through Afghan Hands, they leave the walls of their compounds and attend seminars on basic human, legal, and religious rights. They prepare for work as free women do elsewhere in the world. This way, no one will ever imprison them in the name of law, honor, or religion.

We are a nonprofit organization. We are also linked to the Mirmon Orphanage. Our mutual efforts keep expenses as low as possible so that the funds we raise go to women and children.

In the future, we hope to establish small parks and playgrounds for children who now live in areas devastated by wars, drought, and environmental damage. We envision green havens where words of encouragement and hope are shared.

For now, Afghan women, by their own hands, are transforming their lives. This is our mission. Thank you for your interest in them and in their one-of-a-kind handmade pieces.

The main product lines produced by these women are stunning embroidered shawls, both cotton and pashmina wool, many of which find inspiration in the Suzani motifs traditional in Uzbekistan.  The embroidery is impeccable.  The shawls range from around $150-$1000.  One of the things I really appreciate about the project is this choice to produce quality pieces instead of churning out chotchkies that might be more easily accessible to the general public, but which would not showcase the expertise these women have with their embroidery skills.  Projects like this do a great service to preserving traditional skills while providing the technical assistance to reach an audience that can support quality, handmade embroidery.  Here are a couple of samples that can be found on their website:

Pashmina embroidered shawls, available at Afghan Hands.

 Crinkled cotton shawl by Afghan Hands

Of course, what delighted me the most, was that the women are paid to both study in the morning and embroider in the afternoon.  I am a firm believer that education is the way out of poverty.  Women who can educate themselves have a much greater access to finding their voice in all areas of their life: socially, politically, and as full members of their family and social units.

 Women studying, Afghan Hands.

I often struggle with justifying my years of work in the handicraft field.  With so much hunger in the world, ecological disasters looming, and critical need on so many levels, I sometimes wonder why I spend my time and energy in marketing things that nobody really needs.  Yet, I find redemption over and over again when projects like Afghan Hands give testimony to the healing power these crafts have in the communities where they are made.  I believe that we need the physical beauty these crafts bring into our lives, the connection we can have with the people who made them.  But, the actual process of making things also serves as a therapy which can help rebuild the broken lives in war torn areas like Kabul.  People like Matin are the best peace ambassadors we can ask for.  They open the paths of communication between people who would never have had a connection otherwise.  The women purchasing the shawls learn about the women who made them, and the women who made them likewise expand their world views in learning about markets, design, and value.  Self-esteem grows.  We are no longer strangers to each other.

Visit Afghan Hands, support them in whatever way you can (they also accept donations), and vote for them in the BBC challenge.

All of the photos in this post belong to Afghan Hands and are on their website.


  1. I just want to tell you how much I enjoy your blog and learning about the fiber work being done around the world in impoverished communities. The work you have posted here today is exquisite and the story so uplifting and encouraging. Thank you for always finding great stuff to share!

  2. Hi Rayela, your eloquence in this post, Afghan Hands, is humbling to me, the reader. I think the times when you question why you are marketing and promoting "things that nobody really needs" are the times when you are just plain down and need a break. You freely offer real treasure on your website by way of insightful posts with meaningful photos, inspiration to do what we know is right, inspiration to pursue our dreams and career goals, support for grass roots economic development around the world and a dozen more wonderful contributions. You work harder than anyone I know to promote your ideals. The Kudos go to you, Gina Delorenzi

  3. Thanks to both of you! I do have a deep interest in all of these projects and love bringing them to light. However, I really do feel conflicted about working with imports even though I really love them. My biggest stress lies in the transportation of these items and the costs shipping inflicts on the environment. For example, I sell vintage ralli quilts, a large item. They come to me from traders in Pakistan. I then sell them to other destinations, including Australia. Amplify that by all the packages we are sending all over the place. We can now live anywhere and have access to anything, but there is a cost that we overlook. The truly green thing would be to buy locally as much as possible.

    I know that all of us small vendors are nothing compared to giants like Walmart, but think of eBay and how much traffic that site generates. I'm not willing to give this up, yet it bothers me.

  4. "With so much hunger in the world, ecological disasters looming, and critical need on so many levels, I sometimes wonder why I spend my time and energy in marketing things that nobody really needs."

    This made me feel a bit ashamed. When I flung myself into needlework, it was because I had read too much about the dark side of life on the internet. I found out that it was doing me no good, and I started looking for colors and friendly crafts. But maybe it is time to think about useful activities. The project in Afghanistan certainly is something that gives hope and bread.

    Maybe producing things is good for our souls, and this teaches us how awful it is to deprive people of the occupation they can do and want to do. Taking away their jobs: This is what the Taliban have done. If women become the driving motor of progress, they won't allow men to take this away from them. I do hope that this will become a people's movement.

  5. Thanks for a great article. I am only now beginning to discover the history and merits of embroidery and it has got to be one of the best of the finer textile crafts. I haven't gotten around to exploring Afghan embroidery yet but it was a great and worthwhile introduction.


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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