KABUL: Under the Taliban, the dummies in the women’s clothing shops of Kabul, the Afghan capital, are a haunting sight, their heads covered in cloth bags or wrapped in black plastic bags.
Hooded mannequins are one of the symbols of puritanical Taliban rule over Afghanistan. But in a way, they are also a small demonstration of resistance and creativity of Kabul’s clothing merchants.
Initially, the Taliban wanted the models to be decapitated outright.
Shortly after taking power in August 2021, the Taliban Ministry of Vice and Virtue has decreed that all mannequins must be removed from storefronts or have their heads removed, according to local media. They based the order on a strict interpretation of Islamic law that prohibits statues and images of the human form since they could be worshiped as idols – although this also dovetails with the Taliban’s campaign to drive women out of the public eye.
Some clothing sellers complied. But others have pushed back.
They complained about not being able to properly display their clothes or having to damage valuable mannequins. The Taliban had to change their order and allowed shop owners to cover mannequin heads instead.
Shop owners then had to find a balance between obeying the Taliban and trying to attract customers. The variety of solutions they came up with are on display in Lycee Maryam Street, a middle-class shopping street lined with clothing boutiques in a northern part of Kabul. Shop windows and showrooms are lined with mannequins in evening gowns and gowns bursting with color and decoration – and all in different types of headgear.
In one store, mannequins’ heads were wrapped in bespoke bags made from the same material as the traditional dresses they modeled. One, wearing a purple dress decorated with cowrie shells, had a matching purple hood. Another, dressed in a red dress richly embroidered with gold, was almost elegant in a red velvet mask with a golden crown on her head.
“I can’t cover the mannequins’ heads with plastic or ugly things because it will make my window and my shop ugly,” said Bashir, the owner. Like other owners, he spoke to The Associated Press on the condition that he be identified only by his first name for fear of reprisal.
Shop owners need to keep things attractive – the economy has collapsed since the Taliban takeover and subsequent international funding cut, throwing nearly the entire population into poverty.
Elaborate dresses have always been popular in Afghanistan for weddings, which even before the Taliban were usually separated by gender, giving women a chance to dress their best in the country’s conservative society. Under the Taliban, weddings are one of the few remaining opportunities for social gatherings. But with incomes so stretched, they have become less elaborate.
Bashir said his sales were half of what they were before.
“Buying wedding, evening and traditional dresses is not a priority for people anymore,” he said. “People think more about food and survival.”
Another store owner, Hakim, fashioned aluminum foil over the heads of his mannequins. It adds a certain sparkle to his merchandise, he decided.
“I made this threat and this ban an opportunity and I did it to make the models even more attractive than before,” he said.
Not all can be so elaborate. In one store, mannequins in sleeveless dresses all had black plastic bags over their heads. The owner said he couldn’t afford more.
Another store owner, Aziz, said agents from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue regularly patrol stores and malls to ensure that mannequins are decapitated or covered. He rejected the Taliban’s justification for the rules. “Everyone knows that mannequins are not idols, and nobody is going to worship them. In all Muslim countries, mannequins are used to display clothes.
A small number of male mannequins are visible in shop windows, also with their heads covered, suggesting authorities are enforcing the ban evenly.
The Taliban initially said they would not impose the same harsh rules on society as when they first ruled in the late 1990s. But they gradually imposed more restrictions, especially on women. They banned women and girls from going to school beyond sixth grade, barred them from most jobs, and required them to cover their faces when outside.
Recently, a woman shopping in Lycee Maryam Street looked at the hooded mannequins.
“When I see them, I feel like these models are also captured and trapped, and I have a feeling of fear,” said the woman, who only gave her first name, Rahima.
“I feel like I see myself behind these windows, an Afghan woman who has been deprived of all her rights.”

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