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Afghan women’s role reversal: From homemakers to change makers


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By Babrak Yousufzai | 2014-03-05 | 09:48:00 |

In a male-dominated Afghan society, women have traditionally played a second fiddle role; but times have changed and today women entrepreneurs are calling the shots and making their presence felt in a big way
 
What makes the woman entrepreneurs tick? What is it that drives them? What are the rules by which they play the game? Is there a level playing field for women? Nearly ten years back, you could not pose questions like these to an Afghan woman who used to be confined within the four walls of her house under the watchful eyes of their male guardians.
 
But, the winds of change have sweeped across this forlorn land. Afghan women have shattered the stereotypes and dared to run the gauntlet. They have managed to carve a niche for themselves in the male-dominated Afghan society. Many of them have become successful entrepreneurs today, after beating the odds and overcoming the hurdles. They have established their presence across the sectors.
 
At a time when women’s empowerment has become a buzzword across the world, Afghan women have decided to put their best foot forward, after years of persecution. The Afghan government and international community have pledged their support to women entrepreneurs in this country. There are many organizations and watchdog bodies now to look after the interests of these women entrepreneurs.
 
The old memories, however, still haunt Kamila Sidiqi, one of the most successful women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan today. In 1996, when the Taliban announced their arrival, Sidiqi was preparing to take up a teaching job after getting the teaching certificate. But, under the Taliban, women’s empowerment was considered a taboo. Sidiqi – with her mother, father, five sisters, and two brothers – were forced to lead a secluded life. In the years that followed, Sidiqi and her family faced the worst of times.
 
As the family income dwindled, Sidiqi learnt the art of dressmaking to make ends meet. The demand for home-made, high-quality dresses rose with the crack down on markets by Taliban. Soon, she was flooded with orders, and her business gradually picked up. Her sisters also learnt the needlework under her tutelage, and soon they were running a flourishing business. “It was dangerous initially as the fear of Taliban raiding out house loomed on our mind, but we took up the challenge and here we are,” says Ms. Sidiqi.
 
In 2005, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a Harvard student came to Kabul for her research on Afghan women entrepreneurs. She spent five years with Ms. Sidiqi and her sisters besides other women entrepreneurs in Kabul, and wrote The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, which went on to become a New York Times bestseller in 2011.
 

At a time when women’s empowerment has become a buzzword across the world, Afghan women have decided to put their best foot forward, after years of persecution 


 
Notwithstanding the heavy odds, the women entrepreneurs like Sidiqi, with their passion, perseverance and courage, have managed to sail through. “In a male-dominated industry like in Afghanistan, it is a challenge for women business leaders to make a mark,” says Mariam Safi, Director of the Strategic Studies Department at Afghan Justice Organisation. “These brave women deserve appreciation and accolades for giving their male counterparts run for their money.”


 
However, not everything is hunky-dory. They continue to face problems in terms of difficulties in standardizing their products, lack of latest machineries, low profits, difficulty in execution of marketing plans, shortage of budgets, high taxes, indifference and apathy towards businesswomen by government institutions, inaccessibility to loans etc.

Malalai Jawad, Head of Hilala Silk Production Company, has been running the business since 2009 and despite umpteen challenges and roadblocks; she has managed to take it to next level. “Our products can compete at the international level on the basis of quality but there is still a long way to go and lot more we can do,” says Jawad.
 
She says it is high time for Afghan women to break the shackles and take on the world. “The potential is immense and it is just the matter of getting opportunity and showcasing the talent,” she says. However, she is aware of the mentality in male-dominated Afghan society, which she feels should change. “There are 20 more women working with me, and there are instances when we find the going tough because of unsavory remarks made by some venom-spewing men who find it difficult to accept the fact that women can outshine men in this country.”
 

Notwithstanding the heavy odds, the women entrepreneurs like Sidiqi, with their passion, perseverance and courage, have managed to sail through 

 
Aziza Momand, who runs Azizi Factory, started her enterprise with mere 5,000 USD in 2004. After the initial hiccups, ebbs and flows, she has managed to take her business to a higher level, with the capital of 100,000 USD. She has employed 100 other women at Azizi Factory. “It was a challenge to start and manage this business single-handedly in a country where women generally are used to play a second fiddle role,” says Momand. “But, we are happy with the progress and we hope to carry on like this.”
 
Ms. Momand credits the Ministry of Commerce and Industries for development of business activities and support to women entrepreneurs. Her enterprise has received tremendous support and assistance from the government, he says. Her company is now producing footballs for children, in the range of 2 USD to 12 USD, and they are expecting an authorization letter from FIFA soon.
 
However, Aziza also complains about problems and challenges faced by women business entrepreneurs in terms of shortage of raw materials, low capacity of workers and indifference of society, which is yet to come to terms with women leading the successful enterprises. “It is a struggle but definetely worth it.”
 

The government has also envisaged many development programs for Afghan business enterprises run by women 

 
Muzamil Shinwari, Deputy Minister of Commerce and Industries, says women are being invited to many trade fairs and exhibitions to help them promote their products. “We have signed an agreement with the US government that allows Afghan businesswomen to market and export their products outside the country,” says Mr. Shinwari. The Afghan government, he says, is planning to sign a similar agreement with Germany for financial assistance to at least 1,000 Afghan women entrepreneurs.
 
The government has also envisaged many development programs for Afghan business enterprises run by women.

The government, he says, regularly holds exhibitions for their products in foreign countries and also provides financial support to the tune of 30 to 50 percent. Two exhibitions were held last year.
 
Freshta Haziq, a leading enterpreneur, says they plan to start working on the ambitious plan of recruiting 3,500 Afghan women by January 22, in collaboration with 200 Afghan companies and trade unions.
 
The Afghan women who have traditionally remained confined to four walls of their house are finally recognizing their potential. “There was a time when women had to follow instructions of their male guardians and focus on the household chores,” says Marzia Heshmi, a social activist. “But times have changed and today we can see Afghan women making their country proud in every field from politics to business to sports.” Afghan women, she believes, have finally arrived. 
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