Kabul by night: The luxury class four-wheel drive forces its way expertly through the chaotic traffic the city is fast becoming famous for, its intimidating size and the expertise of its determined driver opening routes through traffic jams with practiced ease. Rhythmic Pashtu music flows out of the partially open windows as we, the driver and myself, in the passenger seat, laugh, sing, hand-clap and joke as we head towards the restaurant selected for dinner. A fairly normal scenario in cities around the world but…….this is Kabul, the heart of Afghanistan, a country ravaged by warfare in one form or another for the past 33 years and…….the highly proficient driver is a woman!

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, the driver is neither some ‘rich upstart’ out to kick over the traces and have some fun, nor is she a foreigner. Her name is Kadija, she wears modest hijab, is sans makeup of any kind, is Afghan through and through although, to be fair, she did, as a direct result of war, spend a chunk of her now middle-aged life, growing up as a refugee in Turkey that is also where, as a young teenager, she made her very first foray into the world of business, discovering in the process that she has a natural flare for juggling figures and orders and she has never looked back.

I am not, however, going to share the incredible life of this beautiful lady with you today, perhaps another time and when I have learnt more about her complicated world of transport, travel, construction and commodities myself. I am using her, with permission of course, to illustrate a point - the point being that few things in this world are as they initially appear and nowhere is this so applicable than the world of women in Afghanistan today.

The stereotypical image of Afghan women - the one so often beamed around the world - is of a subdued figure totally encased in a faded burqa in some intermediate shade of blue yet, while this is largely true of a high percentage of rural areas, it is only applicable to the minority in Kabul where fashion, yes ‘fashion’, decrees otherwise.

It may seem strange to talk about fashion in what is technically a war zone, but females are females the wide world over and most females, despite claims to the contrary, do like to be ‘with it’ to a certain degree and, if being with it means stretching societal limits then this adds spice to dressing up or dressing down as the case may be.

Here in Kabul where females have often been forced to observe extreme dress codes in recent years and especially during the years of Taliban control, they have taken full advantage of a ‘lull’ in the situation and are expressing themselves as never before by dressing as they please, although there are still certain limits so it is advisable not to transgress, and having the time of their lives in the process.

Skin tight jeans have become the pivot of which a young woman’s wardrobe is based and these, some of them artistically ripped, patched and otherwise ornamented, are no longer worn merely inside the home as was once the case, but quite openly out in the street, place of education and, in some instances, even at work. Topped with long sleeved tops, fitted jackets and either a headscarf or, as is more fashionably ‘correct’ these days, a loosely draped dupatta that enhances rather than disguises flowing hairstyles, tight jeans or, for the very daring, second-skin leggings, the current scene is one in which they can, and do, dare to break free.

Women, from teenagers to grandmothers, throng shopping areas to browse through the wide range of fashionable clothes and accessories, mostly imported, which, in line with such products everywhere, run the entire gamut from basically sensible to outright frivolity and, if luminous green nail polish is just what you have been looking for, Kabul is the place to find it!

After designer jeans and glitzy makeup for day wear comes the most mind-boggling evening wear ever ‘invented’ and much of this gilded, sequined, rainbow hued, fitted, plunge neckline and sleeveless plumage is imported from India and, this really is an eye-opener, its sale is not restricted to city locales as it is in high demand in rural bazaars throughout the country although, unlike their city ‘cousins’, rural women only don these often completely outrageous clothes in the privacy of their own homes and then usually only on family occasions such as engagement parties and weddings when, these affairs are segregated by gender, they proudly display themselves and their charms in a women only setting.

Pakistani style shalwar kameez are no longer as popular as they used to be but traditional Afghan outfits, they never disappeared, are increasingly making a high fashion statement all of their very own which is great to see. Above all of this, flying high and flying free, at least for now, is the wonderful fact that the female gender in Afghanistan is, in far more areas than is generally thought, coming back into their own and are no longer afraid to stand up and be counted - in fact, this is exactly their long term goal and, unless and until, they are forced back into hiding, they are well on the way to succeed.

n    The writer is author of The Gun Tree: One Woman’s War (Oxford University Press, 2001) and lives in Bhurban.

    Email: zahrahnasir@hotmail.com