New Internationalist

PHOTO ESSAY: The tailors of Kabul

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Daily life in Kabul goes on despite the chronic insecurity and uncertainty people face. Rich Mallett discovers a vibrant part of Kabul in the city’s tailoring sector.

Transition and insecurity share a close relationship in Afghanistan. This year’s ballot boxes and votes have been accompanied by bomb blasts and bullets on an almost daily basis. International attention almost always focuses on these highly visible – and highly newsworthy – events: suicide attacks, political change, the impending withdrawal of international forces. But amidst the whirlwind of chronic insecurity and uncertainty, life for the many millions of ordinary Afghans goes on.

As part of a recent study by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, I spent some time in Kabul interviewing people working in the city’s tailoring sector. There is still much we do not know about how young people living in difficult places access jobs, and what it means for their lives once they secure employment; our paper sheds some light on these questions, and – together with the images below – offers a glimpse of everyday economic life in one of the world’s most volatile places.

Rich Mallett
Rich Mallett

Tailoring is one of the country’s most important sectors for those living in urban areas: it is the largest employer of urban women and the fourth largest of urban men.

Rich Mallett
Rich Mallett

High numbers of young people work in tailoring. Many start out in the profession at an early age, often due to economic hardship at home.

For most, access to an apprenticeship depends on social networks. Young apprentices are often introduced to their ‘teacher’ through family connections.

The tailoring scheme is widespread in Kabul. While most become ‘qualified’ after three years, some young men can work as low-paid apprentices for nearly a decade.

Young people’s participation is often viewed by elders as positive – having one’s son in the shop all day keeps them off the streets and under a parent’s eye.

Tailoring is deeply gendered and the labour market works differently for young men and women. Deeply embedded ideas about what is deemed acceptable behaviour often prohibit women’s participation.

Female tailors typically work within the private space of the household. As a male interviewer, limits on my interactions with female tailors resulted in the male-dominated series of photographs seen here.

However, Jawid, a shopkeeper, explains that his dream is for his eldest daughter to take over the family tailoring business one day.

Labour markets are dynamic spaces. Cheaper, ready-to-wear clothes are already coming in from China and Turkey, tempting away local customers. Similarly, the uncertainty of 2014 is affecting people’s spending behaviour: most tailors we spoke to felt Afghans have been spending less, concerned more with the future of their country than a new suit or dress. The next few years will have profound effects on Kabul’s tailors.

Some names have been changed.

Rich Mallett is a researcher with the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (@SLRCtweet), based in London, UK. He can be reached @rich_mallett.

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