Setting Out Their Stalls

Afghan businesswomen are determined to rise about cultural and logistic difficulties and succeed in the world of commerce.

Setting Out Their Stalls

Afghan businesswomen are determined to rise about cultural and logistic difficulties and succeed in the world of commerce.

Kabul entrepreneur Nargess, a 30-year-old widow with four sons, is happy if she manages to sell two rugs a week – but she’s even happier if she can do so without being hassled by police, or called a “whore” by passers-by.

She runs her business illegally on a small park at a busy Kabul intersection, because she can’t afford to rent a shop, and shares her meagre profits with three other women. As they sell only six factory-made rugs a month, she is lucky if she makes 1,500 afghanis (around 30 US dollars) in that period.

They have an effective sales technique where one calls to passers-by and the others pose as potential customers, who say good things about the quality of the rugs, and while business is not exactly booming, they get by.

But she claims that the police harass them on a regular basis and even demand bribes from them – while catcalls of “whore” – fahisha in Dari, kanachanai in Pashtu – are common from conservative Kabulis going about their daily business.

Other women trying to make their way in the world of commerce are finding it slightly easier. Giti, who runs a beauty parlour in the south of the capital, makes around ten dollars a day. “Under the Taleban, I was doing this business at home, but now I have a shop and have received no threats,” she told IWPR.

Only a dozen years ago, during the reign of Najibullah and before, women flourished in business, and there were as many as 300 involved in high-level international trade. But years of civil war and the rise of the oppressive Taleban regime forced women back into their homes, while many of those with money and education left the country.

Now a handful of organisations are trying to revitalise the section of the economy at which women excel - carpets, embroidery, shawls, jewellery, and other handmade goods.

The United Nations Fund for Women, UNIFEM, and the ministries of trade and women’s affairs established an association of Afghan businesswomen at the end of last month.

It plans to train women in business skills such as finance, marketing, manufacturing and quality control, as well as giving loans and helping them to find markets for their handicrafts, said UNIFEM director Parwin Paydar.

It’s a modest start in a conservative society that still keeps most women at home, but Paydar dreams of women taking charge of international trading companies again, and exporting their goods throughout the world. However, she admits that it could be decades before such enterprises can make a significant contribution to the economy.

The constraints are as much cultural as economic, Paydar explained, adding, “The majority of women are afraid of encountering problems related to Afghan customs and traditions.”

Belqis, one businesswoman who ran into such difficulties, is now too scared to reopen the beauty parlour she ran during the Najibullah era. “There are a lot of people who want to prevent us from doing business, maybe even resorting to violence to do so, and this causes terror among women,” she said.

And Laila, who sells refurbished and decorated teapots next to Pul-e-khishti Mosque in central Kabul, told IWPR that passersby often kick and damage her wares out of anger and spite.

Other would-be businesswomen told IWPR that their chief concern is that they’ll be criticised, harassed or even attacked by Islamic fundamentalists. Even in Kabul, women hesitate to take a taxi alone because they might be perceived as sexually loose or immoral.

In the capital, the majority of working women are employed by government ministries. However, outside Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, few women are seen on the streets unaccompanied, and virtually none work in offices or shops.

Some Islamic scholars are fairly liberal in their attitudes about women entrepreneurs, but caution that there are religious proscriptions on what women can do in business.

Mawlavi Abdulwahab of Hazrat Omar Faruq mosque in Kabul told IWPR, “Women have no problem doing business from the point of view of Islam. But Muslim women should not go on business trip with [male] colleagues.” Traditionally, women can only be accompanied by a man who is a member of their immediate family.

Cultural worries aside, finding premises for potential small businesses is the biggest problem facing Afghan entrepreneurs. Trade minister Sayed Mustafah Kazimi told IWPR that his ministry has registered more than 2,000 potential business projects – of which only 54 are from women - but a lack of shop space has prevented most of these from getting underway.

Sayid Marof Seadat is an independent journalist in Kabul.

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