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Life After 'Disgrace' -- Islamic State Fighter's Mother Finds Solace In Fashion


Khosiyat Sherova had to rebuild her life amid grief and shame after her son died in Syria fighting for Islamic State extremists. (file photo)

A successful fashion model who earns a living showcasing and selling her embroidered clothes, Khosiyat Sherova has come a long way to reach the success she enjoys.

Sherova, a former state worker in the southern Tajik town of Kulob, says the turning point in her life came after her only son -- a migrant worker in Russia -- went to Syria to join the militant Islamic State (IS) group.

He was killed there in 2014.

"It wasn't only the pain of losing your child, it was also shame and disgrace," Sherova said in describing her sorrow in mourning the death of her 27-year-old son, Bakhtiyor.

In a close-knit small town community, where people rely on the support of family, friends, and neighbors, Sherova had to deal with her grief alone.

"People didn't say anything but it was obvious that they were avoiding me," Sherova says. "For them I was just the mother of a militant nobody wanted to know."

Bakhtiyor Sherov was killed in Syria four years ago. (file photo)
Bakhtiyor Sherov was killed in Syria four years ago. (file photo)

Once an outgoing and popular woman who was chosen to head her neighborhood committee, Sherova found herself an outcast in the community.

Sherova still keeps a copy of the sealed document Kulob officials sent ordering local community leaders to cut ties with her.

The final straw came when Sherova, 51, was fired from her job after local authorities decided she was unfit to work as a cashier because she had "failed" her parental duties.

Sherova said when she came home with the termination letter in her hands she knew it was time to change her life.

But change wasn't easy for a middle-aged divorcee with no financial resources in a country with devastatingly high unemployment.

"I didn't have a diploma or a profession," she says. The only skill she had was making dresses and embroidery she had learned from her mother when she was a young girl.

No longer invited to weddings and neighborhood gatherings, Sherova would spend most of her time alone inside her two-room apartment in Kulob.

Apart from occasional visits from her two daughters, who had married and moved to other towns, Sherova had little contact with others.

Outcast

Sewing and stitching would fill her days and distract her thoughts. She made dresses, throws, and pillowcases adorned with elaborate, colorful embroidery popular in Tajikistan's southern regions.

"I lost my son and with that I lost all my friends, social standing, and income," Sherova says. "But the reality was that life goes on and I had to make a living, pay for food, bills."

One morning, she took several dresses and throws to a bazaar on the other side of the town, which has a population of some 100,000 people.

Her goods sold within hours. She even got an order from a woman who wanted more embroidered pillowcases as a gift for a wedding.

Sherova makes different types of traditional Tajik dresses. (file photo)
Sherova makes different types of traditional Tajik dresses. (file photo)

More orders followed, the word of her quality work spread, and Sherova's handiwork became increasingly popular in town -- although to this day she avoids going to her local, neighborhood bazaar.

Sherova creates different varieties of traditional Tajik dresses, giving them a modern touch.

Sherova's success coincided with the Tajik government policy of promoting traditional clothing to combat what authorities consider the malign influence of foreign culture and outward signs of Islamic extremism.

The government has banned the Islamic hijab, the all-covering niqab, and Middle-Eastern black overalls. Tajik women are instead encouraged to wear colorful national costumes.

"The Culture Ministry tasked me to find popular samples of traditional clothes and to invite the best dressmakers and designers to help the promotional campaign," says Khairullo Tohirov, the head of Kulob's culture department.

Sherova's work was among the most popular collections that Tohirov's team came up with after conducting a search for clothing designers.

Tohirov admits there was unease among other campaign officials when they found out about Sherova's "secret" regarding her son.

"But I told them it wasn't her fault that her son did what he did," the official said. "We forwarded her collections to the [Culture] Ministry."

Second Chance

Sherova was eventually selected by the ministry to join eight other women from different regions of Tajikistan to promote the national dress recommended by the government.

She was assigned to take part in the part of the campaign that is geared toward women over 40 years of age.

Sherova doesn't just design and make her clothes, she also showcases them herself on the runway at fashion shows dedicated to traditional Tajik clothing.

Sherova presenting one of her own creations. (file photo)
Sherova presenting one of her own creations. (file photo)

She has also been featured in photoshoots and fashion exhibits and appeared in the Culture Ministry's Official Guidebook of Recommended Clothes, which was issued in February.

Sherova still finds it difficult to talk about her son.

She says she didn't know exactly when or how her son went to Syria.

The last time she heard from him was in January 2014 in a telephone call Sherova thought was coming from Russia.

Two months later, her neighbors saw a report on the Internet saying Bakhtiyor had been killed in Syria.

But Sherova heard the news from local officials. He is thought to have been one of the first Tajik citizens to have died fighting for the IS.

"Of course, I love him," she says. "Not a day goes by that I don't think about him."

Sherova finds comfort in dressmaking and participating in the state-sponsored campaign, which she believes does help prevent young people from turning to extremism.

She calls it her second chance in life.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Mumin Ahmadi
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