Afghan Businesswoman Need Security to Thrive
By Mandy Clark
10 June 2008
Afghanistan's women are venturing out and embracing new opportunities that were once strictly forbidden under the rule of the ultra religious Taliban. Seven years after the Taliban were ousted, over two million women and girls have access to education and women are getting into business - in roles previously unheard of, such as running a clothing shop, a beauty parlor or even a gym. But, as Mandy Clark reports from Kabul some of these women say that until stability and security are established, they may have to give up their newfound freedom until they feel it is safer to do business.
Afghan women browse a clothing store in Kandahar, Afghanistan, 15 May 2008
Fashion designer, Bakht Nazira discusses the details of her latest design with one of her seamstresses. She has been running her own store in this side street of downtown Kabul for six years and she employs 40 women.
"I'm proud because all my women employees were jobless now they work from home. It is a good chance for them to have an opportunity to work and also and our designs are improving, day by day," she said.
Under the Taliban women were barred from employment. Women entrepreneur were unthinkable and though the regime is gone, Nazira says things are still not easy. Remnants of the Taliban have threatened to attack women-owned stores, scaring off some of her customers.
"It is better, but not easier than before. We have so many difficulties and problems but we are coping, we hope all these problems will be solved," she added.
Other businesswomen understand those concerns all too well. Fareeda Ali is one of them. She opened a gym for women-only in 2005, but Taliban sympathizers threatened to hurt her family members if her gym remained open. She felt she had to close it down. Now she has to rent a man's gym for an hour a day so women can use it.
The women here did not want to be identified. Women exercising was forbidden under the Taliban and is still considered taboo in Afghanistan's traditional society. Fareeda Ali does not think she'll run her own business again.
"It would be nice but I don't think that I could open another women's gym," said Ali.
Under the ultra-religious rule of the Taliban even wearing make-up was forbidden, women who wore nail polish risked having their fingers cut off. It was during this time that Asafa Barya fled to Pakistan. She returned when the Taliban fell and says it's her calling to help women feel beautiful again.
"During Taliban times, beauty parlors had to go underground and do their work secretly," said Barya. "By doing this job, I'm serving my sisters."
Afghan women wait for customers as they try to sell vegetables at the market in Kabul, Afghanistan, 26 Apr 2008
Women's lives have improved, but they still remain restrictive. Most women do not venture outside without wearing the long, flowing bright blue cloak, the burqa. But, women and girls can now go to school and they can work.
These young women have returned home to Afghanistan after spending years in Pakistan and Iran as refugees. They are now being taught how to sew to improve their chances of employment.
Their teacher Arab Gul sees these skills as their path to independence.
"Some of these girls can be good tailors after six months learning this vocational training. When they go to home, they can start a small business or they can sell their clothes at the bazaar, providing a small income for themselves," said Arab.
World leaders and development experts have repeatedly said that Afghanistan's women must be part of the process of rebuilding their country and that without greater rights and opportunities for women, a modern democracy will have little chance of taking hold. So far the results are mixed with some definite gains, but also many remaining hurdles and dangers. And, Afghanistan's newest entrepreneurs say security and peace are crucial.
Some women entrepreneurs worry about future business prospects, but Bakht Nazira remains undaunted and talks of expanding her business abroad. She already has contracts with two American companies to sell jewelry and scarves and wants to do more.
"I'm really interested in exporting to other countries. This is a chance to improve the business and get more work for my employees," said Nazira.
And Bakht Nazira says she hopes that acceptance from abroad may help her own people see her as a business first, a woman second.