Afghan Brides Dress To Impress, Fueling An Unlikely Business Boom

Aug 10, 2014
Originally published on August 11, 2014 9:05 am

Afghans live in one of the world's poorest countries — but you wouldn't know that from their lavish wedding ceremonies. Families sell possessions and borrow money to rent expensive wedding halls for hundreds of guests. This wedding culture is part of the reason there's been a boom in women's dress shops in my neighborhood in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

It's still one of the most jarring contradictions in Afghanistan: watching women wearing headscarves, or full, head-to-toe blue burkas, walking down the street past store windows full of glamorous, low-cut gowns.

Within the last year, a mini-mall opened up at the end of my street, and it quickly filled with more than a half-dozen shops selling elegant wedding dresses and party gowns. There are now about 20 dress shops within a block of my house.

It's typical for businesses to cluster together the way dress shops have in this upper middle-class neighborhood. Kabul's Butcher Street, Flower Street, and Toilet Street didn't get those names by accident.

Mubin Raufi runs the Romez Store in the small shopping center. Surrounded by mannequins decked out in shimmering green, pink and white gowns, he says he's been in this business for six years. He moved to this neighborhood within the last year when the mini-mall opened.

"This area is known for shops that take custom orders, and women come here because they know they can shop comfortably and order whatever they want," says Raufi.

And if customers aren't comfortable with a man helping with their purchase, some stores have a woman they can call to come help instead.

Raufi says most of his customers bring catalogs or pictures of dresses, and he works with them to refine the designs – often adding a bit more covering since some of the samples are a little too risqué even for the segregated wedding parties where most of these dresses are worn.

Once the customer finalizes the design, Raufi has the dress made in a local factory. He says one of the reasons people shop in this neighborhood is because they know the dresses are Afghan-made.

As we talk, a family browses through the shop but leaves without placing an order. Raufi says business is down right now because of the uncertainty caused by the unresolved presidential election, and the ongoing audit of the ballots cast nearly two months ago. Still, he says this is a very good business.

"This is a clean way to earn your bread for your family," he says.

And shop owners say that selling these high-end dresses is far more lucrative than selling day-to-day women's clothes. Despite the fact that women buy fewer of these dresses, the profit can be more than ten times that of a typical women's outfit. And there's plenty of demand for dresses that can cost up to $900 – roughly three times the average monthly wage in Afghanistan.

Conservatively dressed and wearing a headscarf, Hadiya, who like many Afghans gives only one name, is perusing the shops for her wedding dress.

"It's in every Afghan woman's nature to want a better dress than what other women are wearing," says the 28-year old bride-to-be.

And that, she says, means buying the most expensive of dresses.

Farida, a 23-year-old teacher, agrees.

"Of course there is competition among families to buy the most expensive dresses," she says. Farida, who is helping a friend find a wedding party dress, says she's proud of the quality of Afghan dresses and says they are worth the money.

Down the street is one of the newest businesses in the neighborhood, Woman Palace. Like the other shops in the area, and most Afghan businesses in general, it's run by a man, 27-year-old Said Nasibullah.

For three years, Nasibullah has run a construction and logistics company. But with the drawdown of foreign troops, that business has been in decline.

"So I decided to open a separate business serving the women of Afghanistan," he says.

Nasibullah got the idea from his trips to Dubai, where he saw malls full of women's clothing stores. Woman Palace also sells handbags and high-heeled shoes in addition to party dresses suitable for private functions, some of which look like they wouldn't cover very much.

"Some customers say that the dresses are too short, but the majority like our clothes," he says. "It shows progress."

But Nasibullah says he doesn't expect to see women wearing these clothes out on the streets any time soon.

NPR's Sultan Faizy contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Despite living in one of the poorest countries in the world, Afghans tend to spend lavishly on wedding ceremonies. Families will sell possessions and borrow money to rent expensive wedding halls for hundreds of guests. As NPR's Sean Carberry reports, that wedding culture is driving sales at women's dress shops in his Kabul neighborhood.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: One of the most jarring contradictions in Afghanistan is seeing women walking down the street wearing headscarves or full head-to-toe burkas, yet walking past dress shops with glamorous, low-cut gowns the windows. Within the last year, this mini-mall opened up at the end of my street, and it's filled with more than half-a-dozen shops selling elegant wedding dresses and party gowns. There are now about 20 dress shops within a block of my house. Mubin Raufi runs the Romez Store in the small shopping center.

MUBIN RAUFI: (Foreign language spoken).

CARBERRY: Surrounded by mannequins decked out in shimmering green, pink and white gowns, he says he's been in this business for six years. He moved to this neighborhood recently when the mini-mall opened.

RAUFI: (Through translator) This area is known for shops that take custom orders, and women come here because they know they can shop comfortably and order whatever they want.

CARBERRY: It's typical here for businesses to cluster together the way dress shops have in this upper-middle-class neighborhood. Kabul's Butcher Street, Flower Street and Toilet Street didn't get those names by accident.

RAUFI: (Foreign language spoken).

CARBERRY: Raufi says most of his customers bring catalogs or pictures, and he works with them to refine the designs, often adding a bit more coverings since some of the samples are little too risque, even for the segregated wedding parties where most of these dresses are worn.

As we talk, a family browses through the shop but leaves without placing an order. Raufi says business is down right now because of the uncertainty caused by the still-unresolved election and the ongoing audit of the ballots cast nearly two months ago. Still, he says, this is a very good business.

RAUFI: (Through translator) This is a clean way to earn your bread for your family.

CARBERRY: And shopowners here say that selling these high-end dresses is far more lucrative than selling day-to-day clothes. Despite the fact that women buy fewer of these dresses, the profit can be more than 10 times that of a typical women's outfit. And there's plenty of demand for dresses that can cost up to $900 - roughly three times the average monthly wage in Afghanistan. In one store is 28-year-old Hadiya, who like many Afghans, gives only one name. Conservatively dressed and wearing a headscarf, she's perusing the shops for her wedding dress.

HADIYA: (Through translator) It's in every Afghan woman's nature to want a better dress than what the other women are wearing.

CARBERRY: She says that means buying the most expensive of dresses. Twenty-three-year-old teacher, Farida, who's helping a friend find a wedding party dress, agrees.

FARIDA: (Through translator) Of course there's competition among families to buy the most expensive dresses.

CARBERRY: She says she's proud of the quality of Afghan dresses and says they're worth the money. Down the street is one of the newest businesses in the neighborhood. This is Woman Palace, run by 27-year-old Said Nasibullah. For three years, Nasibullah's run a construction and logistics company, but with the drawdown of foreign troops, that business has been in decline.

SAID NASIBULLAH: (Through translator) So I decided to open a separate business serving the women of Afghanistan.

CARBERRY: He got the idea from his trips to Dubai where he saw malls full of women's clothing stores. Woman Palace also sells handbags and high-heeled shoes in addition to dresses, some of which look like they wouldn't cover very much.

NASIBULLAH: (Through translator) Some customers say that the dresses are too short, but the majority like our clothes. It shows progress.

CARBERRY: But Nasibullah says he doesn't expect to see women wearing these clothes out on the streets anytime soon. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.