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Meet Zulaikha Aziz

Today we’d like to introduce you to Zulaikha Aziz.

Zulaikha, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I’m an international human rights attorney by profession but I’ve always had a deep love of and connection to jewelry. I came to the US as a refugee from Afghanistan with my family when I was a baby. We fled the (then) Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. My family had to leave everything behind except for some ancestral gold pieces that my grandmother was able to hide and bring with her. She used these pieces to teach me about my culture and heritage and they have always been a source of strength and connection for me. I devoted my life to working for the rights of people in conflict and post-conflict countries, most of my focus over the past 2 decades has been working in Afghanistan. It’s very heavy work and on my last assignment there (from August 2018 through September 2019) I decided to take time and explore my creative side through my love of jewelry and gemstones. As I started designing pieces and learning about various gemstones and gold mining, I realized there were a lot of human rights issues related to jewelry. Gold and precious gemstones have been something so meaningful and important for humans (as a way to connect with each other and the divine) throughout the ages but they have also been a source of suffering and exploitation for the very countries that were invaded by colonial powers for their natural resources and which are still dealing with the impact of conflicts stemming from colonialism. I sought a better way to create meaningful jewelry that would positively impact the lives of everyone involved in the creation of the pieces (from mining to sales) as well as the wearer. I think we live in a time where people want their meaningful pieces (whether clothes or jewelry or art objects) to speak to their values and to make a positive impact, or at the very least not adversely impact people’s lives. We are so much more aware of our impact on people and the planet through our purchasing power, I wanted to create a line of fine jewelry that is imbued with deep meaning and strives to make a positive impact. That’s how Mazahri was born.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
I started Mazahri, my fine jewelry brand, during the pandemic so it’s definitely been an interesting ride… I’d say anything but smooth! I’ve had to deal with shipping and production delays, but I made it work and launched my business on March 20, 2021 — the first day of Spring and the New Year for Afghans! It was a very hopeful time and I was met with enthusiasm for my designs and the purpose and meaning behind them.

I could not foresee that in August of 2021 Afghanistan would be plunged into a bigger crisis with the withdrawal of US and International forces and the defacto transfer of the country to the Taliban, the very group that had reigned down so much terror on the Afghan people during their reign in the late 1990s and through suicide bombings and war since. I saw all the work I had devoted myself to since graduating college crumble before my eyes. My colleagues, friends and family members in Afghanistan were fleeing for their lives and I was devastated. I took a whole 6 months off my business to focus exclusively on assisting Afghans seeking to flee persecution in Afghanistan. My business suffered from a lack of focus and attention but it was something I was compelled to do.

Now I’m refocusing on a 2.0 launch and reintroduction of Mazahri. I am committed more than ever to the brand and its purpose of shedding a bright light on the beauty and richness of Afghan culture, not the false narrative of fear and darkness being imposed on Afghans right now.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
My designs are all grounded in ancient Afghan symbols and motifs that have deep meanings that have carried through the ages. I’m proud of shining light on some of those symbols and explaining the meanings behind them. I’m proud of sharing the light and joy of Afghan culture through my jewelry that is not often presented to the world. It’s easy to pigeonhole people and cultures into certain boxes, otherizing them and painting them as one-dimensional so that we can justify wars that we engage in or foreign policy decisions which hurt them. It’s harder to justify killing and torture resulting directly from our government’s actions if we don’t see those impacted as humans like us. I think it’s really important for people to question their responses to world events and why we may feel more sympathy for some people dealing with war and conflict and not others. Why do we feel a closer kinship with certain groups facing hardship and not others? I think art and design have a way of speaking to these questions through our common humanity in a way that other mediums can’t always transcend.

Specifically, I work in 18K Farimined gold and verifiable responsibly sourced gemstones. “Ethical” and “Sustainable” have become common catchphrases that people use to signal that their items are “good” but I believe in transparency and education around sourcing, where are these materials actually coming from? Who is mining them? Who is processing them? How are they and their communities being impacted? Are they being paid fairly? Adequately? Are they working in safe conditions? Are their communities being harmed by environmental damage? What is being done about that? I only work with sourcing partners that cab verify and trace the materials back to the miners and that have strong assurances with regard to fair pay, safe working conditions, and environmental regulations.

Do you have any advice for those looking to network or find a mentor?
I believe strongly in mentorship and in reaching out to folks in an industry that you resonate with. I’ve benefitted greatly from mentorships both in my legal career and also in starting Mazahri, I would not have been able to find the trusted partners I work with today had I not reached out to leaders in the industry working in the ethical jewelry space. I’m very grateful for them and I seek to pay that forward with any folks aspiring to enter the jewelry industry, particularly people of color who have long been excluded from the fine jewelry industry in the US even though we are disproportionally involved in the mining and manual labor production of fine jewelry.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Sara Rey (all product shots) Damaly Shephard (all model shots)

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