The New Breadwinners

Kabul’s bereaved and brutalised women are selling bread on the streets to win back their independence and dignity.

The New Breadwinners

Kabul’s bereaved and brutalised women are selling bread on the streets to win back their independence and dignity.

Masooda sits in the dust of a Kabul street, barefoot under the heat of the sun, her arms full of flatbreads that she is trying to sell at the side of the road. Her life is a hard one, yet she is curiously upbeat. “Selling bread is better than the whips of the Taleban,” she told IWPR.

“I lost my husband during the war and am the only one who can provide food for my family. But we are now free and can live our lives independently.”

Masooda, who lost her husband in the conflict, is one of many war-widows now able to make a living in the capital by selling bread they have prepared at home or bought cheaply from bakeries.

Young girls also involved in the trade, seeing it as a useful way of supporting their families. Meena’s father lost both his legs in the conflict and is dependent on his young daughter to provide for him “If I don’t sell bread, my family will die from hunger. I lost my brother, mother and a sister in the war. Now I only have my two sisters and my father,” she said.

Another bread-seller, who did not want to be named, said many women had no other choice but to become street hawkers, “ It would be very good if the government gave us opportunities to get proper jobs such as carpet weaving, cleaning raisins, soap-making, tailoring and so on.”

The women of Afghanistan have not always faced such difficulties. The country’s 1964 constitution was drafted with their input; the Seventies saw at least three female legislators and they filled a number of roles in the next two decades - working as doctors, lawyers, journalists and judges.

However, the rise of the Taleban saw an end to women’s professional and personal freedoms, and the start of an era of discrimination and marginalisation.

Only around three per cent of girls received a primary school education under the student militia, and a sweeping ban on female employment had a detrimental effect on the education of both sexes, as the majority of teachers had been women.

The Taleban also limited women’s freedom of movement. They were only allowed out of the house if accompanied by a male relative; banned from driving cars; and often beaten if their appearance did not meet the student militia’s strict standards.

During this harsh era, one of the few opportunities they had to make some money and provide for their families was by working in a score of clandestine bakeries - supported by the World Food Programme - in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif.

Since the fall of the student militia, women have been moving back into public life only to find themselves totally unprepared and unqualified for the few jobs available.

So many are falling back on what they know - a skill that fed their families and gave them a shred of hope and dignity under a brutal regime.

Back at the square in front of the Plaza Hotel in central Kabul, Shafiqa is selling her freshly baked wares. “I am from the north. The student militia destroyed our homes, gardens and ripped up our vines with their tractors.

“They killed my husband and my son, leaving me on my own with another son and three daughters. I brought them to the city and I see the cruel Taleban have gone. Now we can begin to live again.”

Masooda, though dressed in a tattered old burqa, shares Shafiqa’s optimism. “A brightness has come to Afghanistan,” she said. “I am sure that I will find a better job, and we are all very confident about the future of our country.”

Uranus Ghezal is a Kabul-based freelance reporter.

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