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Region | Such a Drag: Taliban Fashion Fling Fizzles

by NUSHIN ARBABZADAH

24 Apr 2012 23:28Comments

Cross-dressed guerrillas fail to terrorize Afghans.

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Nushin Arbabzadah writes the "Islamic Republic Next Door" column on Afghanistan for Tehran Bureau. She is a former BBC journalist and a regular contributor to the Guardian.

[ satire ] A quirky side-story of the recent coordinated attacks in Kabul, one that went largely unnoticed, was the Afghan police's revelation that some of the operations involved men in drag. Before readers get all excited, we are not talking about a new type of insurgency, a transvestite revolution sprung up out of the blue somewhere in the dry desert of southwestern Afghanistan -- which would certainly amount to a dystopian nightmare come true for religious right-wingers in Kabul and Washington, Tehran and Islamabad alike.

No, we are talking about impressively bearded Taliban men crossing what should rightly be known as "so-called" borders, given that they are as porous as any decent salad spinner, while dressed in drag on their way to unleash havoc against a long-beleaguered population. Their dress-up style is, to employ Madonna's favorite term, girly-girl -- albeit girly-girl of a rural Afghan variety, so nothing tight-fitting or leathery here. The whole ensemble, complete with the black beards, is then hidden underneath a burqa, making a joke of what is an authentic form of modest dress in the local culture. Which raises the question, Can you seriously claim to be fighting for the independence of a culture that you're ridiculing at the same time? Then again, the Taliban are famous for creating the rules as they go, making them only the local reflection of Washington's policymakers and their often ad hoc Afghan policies.

From the aesthetic perspective, a freakish coincidence was conjured as the girly-girl Talibs upon arrest were discovered to be dressed in the eye-catchingly bright colors that are oh so en vogue this spring. It was only two weeks ago that the Guardian's beauty expert, Sali Hughes, was gushing about a very similar palette, welcoming it as the season's loveliest trend. In a nod to the universal unity of all beings, for once the visual aesthetics of rural Afghan girls met with the imagination of trend setters in London, Paris, and New York, paraded in the unlikely person of Taliba drag queen-cum-suicide bombers.

One of those placed in custody was sporting a flirtatious dress in a color that looked suspiciously pink and embroidered across the chest to emphasize the femininity of the...ahrm...gentleman. It all added a new, unexpected meaning to the Taliban's self-proclaimed "Spring" -- may we add, Fashion -- "Offensive." The most visually offensive part of the venture was the fact that the Talibs had not bothered to shave off their beards before putting on the sort of dresses associated with coy and much-coveted Afghan teenage rural girls. We don't mind the hairy legs and chest, but the face? Come on Taliban, if you must do it, do it properly. Shave the beards.

These grown men with full black beards dressed up in bright, girly-girl colors were, needless to say, far from fetching. One cannot help but feel that whoever dreamed up this sartorial strategy had spent his fair share of solitary nights indoors, watching Dick Emery, Monty Python, and Little Britain. As it is, the Taliban paid unwitting homage to the music hall tradition that has long made straight men dressing up as ladies such a key element of British popular comedy. Given the crudity of the end result, neither Dame Edna nor Eddie Izzard could be accused of having inspired this particular instance of cross dressing.

To be fair, there's a long history in Afghanistan of men escaping justice, thieves, and personal enemies concealing themselves in women's garments, but the sartorial switch was historically restricted to the burqa alone and did not involve full dresses and chadors. This new trend reconfirms the Taliban's readiness to embrace anything, however culturally taboo in Afghanistan, as long as it might help them blow up people. The notion that the Taliban, or Afghans as such, are unchanging is one of those fantasies entertained by masochistic liberals prone to admire anyone, including the Taliban, from beyond their own Western civilization. That's another quirky side-story, much longer running.

Well, what the Taliban's sartorial strategist obviously failed to take into account was the speed with which photographs of the drag queens would spread on the Internet. Shared and reshared endlessly, the Afghans' famously dark sense of humor revealed itself in full glory as comments poured in on online social networks. "Tonight is the night, here comes the bride" read one beneath an image of the aforementioned Talib done up pretty in pink. The comment set off a deluge of LOLz. Another witty sarko suggested that from now on, Afghans should refer to the Taliban as "our disgruntled sisters" -- a deliberate reversal of Kabul's favorite euphemism for the group: "our disgruntled brothers."

And so the democratic power of the Internet meant that, within hours, the Taliban's self-created image of fierce, testosterone-filled, über-masculinity was damaged for good. Now, rather than fear, they triggered ridicule and laughter.

Given that it was the Taliban themselves who had done so much to make Afghan women feel ashamed of themselves for being women, it was poetic justice that their dressing up as women led to an outpouring of derision bordering on contempt. Owing in part to the Taliban's own misogyny, no insult is greater for an Afghan man than to be called a woman. And this is just what the Talibs got with their "Spring Offensive."

© T. Dworzak Collection / Magnum Photos.

The Islamic Republic Next Door | Hidden Lives: Afghan Girls in Germany | Making Sense of Suffering | My Heedless Afghan Home

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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