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Afghan women shatter Taliban mold

A growing number of Afghan women are going into business, capitalizing on opportunities in a thriving, yet still male-dominated economy three years after the fall of the Islamist Taliban government.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sara Rahmani, businesswoman, picks a brown burqa-style dress from the rack, and holding it in front of her face, shows with a broad smile how she refashioned it for post-Taliban Afghanistan.

The all-covering shroud that was mandatory under the hard-line regime has become a flowing gown, with head uncovered and the eye-level gauze dropped to the chest — though not too low. It’s on sale now for $30 at her Kabul showroom.

The 36-year old former refugee is among the growing number of Afghan women going into business, capitalizing on new opportunities in a thriving, yet still male-dominated economy three years after the fall of the Islamist government.

A scattering of small textile and handicraft workshops, boutiques, beauty parlors and even a soccer ball factory — run by women and employing women — have sprung up around the capital. Afghanistan’s first female business association — set up with foreign funding 18 months ago — says it has 500 members.

Running hard to catch up
Barred from education and jobs during the five years of Taliban rule, women now have the right, at least on paper, to pursue careers of their choosing. But this is a male-dominated society where 86 percent of women are illiterate.

U.N. figures say the per-capita income of Afghan women is only about one-third of men’s. A survey of 360 rural households by a Kabul-based research group found that less than 2 percent of women owned land in their own right.

Mina Sherzoy, head of the government’s department of Women’s Entrepreneurship Development, said that women needing startup money typically must turn to a male relative.

“There are barriers, and they will be lifted slowly,” she said. “We are recovering from war and devastation and Taliban repression. ... But there’s nothing in Shariah (Islamic law) that says women can’t do business.”

Burgeoning business
Rahmani started making clothes during years as a refugee in neighboring Pakistan. She returned to Afghanistan last year, and with a $35,000 loan from her brother in the United States, set up shop in a cramped, two-story terrace.

Seven months later she employs 70 women, 10 doing machine stitching on site and 60 others doing embroidery by hand at home. She also employs two Afghan men — a tailor to teach the workers and an English-speaker to help with marketing and shopping for fabric.

Her company, Sara Afghan, is still struggling to make ends meet, but is busy with orders from two American clients for 100 blouses and 100 sets of duvet covers and sheets, from which Rahmani hopes to make about $2,000 profit.

“We have two orders, so we should be OK to pay salaries and rent for the next two months. God willing, after that, more business will come,” she said. “A lot of poor women are praying for me.”

Soccer balls across town
Across town, another cottage industry makes quality leather balls for soccer, volleyball and handball — hand-stitched by about 130 women working from home, many of them widowed during a quarter-century of war.

Aziza Mohmmand, 45, who ran a secret girls’ school at her house during the Taliban rule and heads an Afghan aid group to help women, said she got the idea two years ago when she saw a young boy on a Kabul street trying to sell a homemade ball.

“At the start, it was a struggle. We had so many footballs, we’d spent lots of money and we couldn’t seem to sell them,” she said in her office, above the din of a generator driving a leather-cutting machine.

“But demand gradually picked up. Before Ramadan (last November) we discovered for the first time we were actually out of stock.”

Her company produces more than 1,000 balls a month sold under the name of the aid group Humanitarian Assistance for Women. It supplies balls to local markets and the Afghan Olympic association. A German aid group has helped fund training of the work force, and now the factory can at least cover its costs.

The women earn 32 Afghanis (64 cents) for each ball they stitch. A novice can take two days to stitch a ball, but those with experience can make up to four a day. The balls sell for about $6 each.

“Before this we had no job,” said 16-year old Morsal, a returned refugee, stitching a ball outside her simple house with plastic sheeting covering the windows. “I’m happy we got training and have this skill.”