Celebrating Afghan culture and supporting women
12 January 2022 at 4:49 pm
Lida Mangal is the founder of Ghan Fashion, a social enterprise helping Afghan women forge a path to financial independence. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
Traditional Afghan women’s garments are bright, colourful, and intricately designed.
But when the Taliban took control of the country at the end of 2021, new rules were imposed on what females could wear in educational settings, limiting them to a uniform black hijab. When Lida Mangal saw what was happening, she knew she had to do something about it.
Originally from Afghanistan, Mangal spent a number of years working for an NGO, during her time as a refugee in Pakistan. In her job she helped fellow refugee women design and make their own clothes.
Many women she worked with were fearful that by wearing colourful clothing, they would attract men (something that is considered a sin in their religion). But Mangal’s mission was to help them see that wearing colour was about expressing yourself, rather than being confined to wearing just black or white.
When she arrived in Australia, she saw a gap in the market for a clothing brand that met the needs of Australian Afghans for traditional dresses, but also promoted their culture through offering contemporary designs with an “Afghani touch” for the wider community.
Launched in 2020 out of Sydney, Ghan Fashion not only celebrates her culture, it also supports Afghan women to be financially independent by having an factory in Afghanistan that employs women to produce her designs.
In this week’s Changemaker, Madgal discusses the journey to starting Ghan Clothing, the people who inspire her, and how starting her own business has changed her world.
Can you tell me a little bit about how Ghan Fashion came about?
The idea came about when I was working for an NGO in Pakistan as a refugee. I was really interested in vintage Afghan designs and making them as colourful as possible. In Pakistan, women were afraid of wearing colourful dresses because they were thought that if they wore colourful designs, they would attract men, a sin in their religion. I was trying to tell them that colour is just a way to express yourself and your feelings. It’s also about more than dresses, it’s our identity, and we can’t really change that to black and white.
When I came to Australia, I looked into traditional Afghan designs available but there wasn’t a lot that I liked. They were not very attractive or good quality. Luckily, I was invited to participate in a multicultural fashion show. Until I was invited, every culture had their own designs to be showcased except Afghanistan. So I showcased my own designs, which are a mix of vintage and contemporary Afghan designs.
Unfortunately, the fashion show was cancelled due to COVID, but my garments arrived and I sold out immediately. I was really motivated because the Afghan women who were making the clothes were disadvantaged and had no support financially. I promised myself that I would support these women with my passion and through my work.
Why is it important for you to celebrate traditional designs?
We have different governments, different regimes in each country. There is always opposition and regimes change and collapse. It is not that when a new regime comes along, they immediately grant freedom of choice, freedom of speech, freedom of education. And I really do not agree or accept the ideology of not wearing colourful dresses. That’s against every woman, I believe. And I reject this ideology and the slogan of the Taliban that we all have to wear black. I’m standing with my own heritage, with my own beautiful, colourful Afghan designs. I want to see more contemporary designs that show those people that we are colourful, we are strong. I will be the voice for my heritage, for women, and I will change that so nobody can touch our vintage designs. I can’t even express my anger when I heard about this. You know, it’s made me very, very upset. It is the thing that drives me to continue, even if it is very hard at times.
How did you maintain a level head and overcome the challenges of running your business?
Of course, there are challenges. Life is not without any challenges. I came from a very difficult country. I was raised with challenges. I have witnessed dead bodies, bullets, rocket shootings, migrating from one place to another. To me, those were the real challenges of my life. Now I’m safe, I’m happy, I have a good life, I have a job, family, friends, and I live in a very beautiful and safe country.
Most business owners will prioritise making profits so that their business can grow. Of course, that is important for me as well, but what really inspires me and keeps me going through the challenges of running Ghan Fashion is the women who make my clothes. The value of supporting and bringing smiles and giving hope to hopeless people, especially women, is huge. The value of that can’t be counted in dollars or in money. I also see the need in my community of Afghan women in Australia. This is a way of connecting with their culture through vintage and contemporary designs.
What makes you proud about the work you do?
This recent work that I’ve done is amazing because I have my soul in those clothes. When a small group of women came to my showroom to check them out, I got such positive feedback which was an amazing feeling. It also makes me very happy and proud of those women who are behind these dresses. I don’t have words to thank them because they are the real champions and the real heroines behind this whole journey.