KABUL: In traditional Afghan dress, regional costumes, Western outfits, and some in more revealing attire, young men and women walked a red carpet to background music, taking applause from a tightly packed audience in a sprawling Kabul cafe.
Such scenes may well be familiar sights at fashion events around the world, but not in the Afghan capital. The show marked the first major beauty competition for men and women, Afghanistan’s Mr. and Miss Beauty 2020.
Sixty contestants aged between 14 and 30 participated in the recent competition to scout local talent.
Organizer, Hamid Wali, told Arab News: “It is a new concept, and has not happened before. It is the first time a fashion agency has done something that connects all the models, all the fashion.”
Wali set up the first professional Afghan modeling agency, Modelstan, in 2018 after returning from India where he worked for years in the fashion industry.
The 27-year-old’s aim is to promote local models to advertise local companies, which for years amid taboos and restrictions have relied on professionals from neighboring countries. The goal does not come without obstacles, prejudice, and accusations of foreign interference.
“We are a group of Afghan youths. Some think we are allied with a Western nation and get funding from a Western embassy. But we are not Western culture promoters, we are Afghans, we are Afghan culture promoters,” he said.
The main obstacle has been resistance from the models’ families, and Wali has tried hard to persuade them that there was nothing wrong in posing and being photographed for the media.
“We had a lot of arguments. There are a lot of families whom we had to convince,” he added.
Despite the agency’s efforts, however, the main burden rests on the models themselves with some of them willing to risk everything to follow their dream.
Nigara Sadaat, who was chosen by a jury of four women and men as Miss Beauty, said she had kept her participation in the contest secret.
“I secretly, without the knowledge and approval of my family, attended the competition. They still oppose what I have done,” she told Arab News after the show.
Sadaat has always wanted to be a model and during the show she wore modest embroidered tunics and scarves. Nevertheless, her relatives were outraged by the very act of modeling.
“My relatives, in a humiliating manner, called my dad and informed him that ‘your daughter has become a model.’ I have not been able to go back home after the appearance of my images on media,” she said.
For now, she prefers to stay at her married sister’s house.
Mortaza Safi, who became Mr. Beauty, is in a similar predicament.
“There are some who oppose modeling in Afghanistan. My father showed the utmost opposition and refused to allow me,” said the 20-year-old, wearing a cowboy hat, thick khaki overcoat, and slim trousers.
“My dad forced me to shave my head, so that I would change my mind, and took me to a barber shop, thinking that if I lost my hair, I won’t be fit to attend the competition.”
Safi added that he had fled his hometown in northern Mazar-i-Sharif to pursue his passion for modelling and fashion. He ignored his family’s concerns and traveled through the night to Kabul for the first day of the event.
Modelling was a distant dream for the generations before them, especially during Taliban rule in the late 1990s, when women were banned from most outdoor activities, including work and education.
A possible return of the Taliban to power as a result of ongoing peace talks between the group and the Afghan government, which may lead to a new government manned by both sides, has left many fearful that their freedoms could again be curbed.
But the models vowed that whatever the future holds, they were determined to pursue their career paths.
“We all want restoration of peace here and we have no problem with the return of our Taliban brothers,” said Diana Adeeb, a young model who wore no headscarf.
She added that while the Taliban were part of Afghanistan too, they should respect the rights of others.
“We have witnessed too much trouble in modelling and faced too many risks with family and society. Our rights should not be trampled, and we should not be forced over how we should or should not be,” she said.