A little over a decade ago, the notion of women running businesses in Afghanistan was fantastic, unreal, dangerous. But despite ongoing challenges, dozens now run shops, companies and associations of businesswomen. And thanks to momentum and peer support, more are poised to follow.
Saleswoman 'Najiba' adjusts the display in a Kabul mall boutique. She is proud of her work, but in these anxious times she still prefers not to be named or directly photographed. (Photo: Fawzia Ihsan. Main photo: American University Kabul)
For Afghan women with entrepreneurial aspirations, the opportunities are gradually broadening in both front-line retail outlets and the business school arena.
At the Rasooli shopping centre, a nine-storey mall and one of Kabul's largest, women were a rare sight. But thanks to pioneer businesswomen like Lida, that is changing. Eighteen months ago, the 24-year-old invested her savings to open a clothing store and hasn't looked back since.
"I was the first female salesperson in the market," says Lida (name changed upon request), who, despite her inexperience, has built up a thriving, sustainable business. "At first people were surprised and curious to see a saleswoman. Now it is quite normal."
While women are now qualifying in business studies and trail-blazing elsewhere, the trend starts just as much at a grassroots level.
While her gender was initially an obstacle, Lida says it proved to be a key reason for her success: women simply prefer to buy clothes from other women.
"Women say it is good that the salesperson is a woman," says Lida, who imports lines from abroad to ensure she stocks the latest fashions. "They try on the clothes and ask me my opinion,” she explains, noting that such confidence and intimacy would not be possible with male shop owners. Consequently she now has a large pool of loyal customers who confide their needs as they shop. Morover, men prefer their wives and daughters to shop at a store run by a woman.
Yet it isn’t only in retail that women are making strides. Several recently opened small and medium enterprises, says Malawi Jaweed, a manager at the Afghan Women's Business Federation (AWBF). Set up in 2005 under a USAID-funded initiative, the organization promotes the welfare and rights of women workers in Afghanistan.
Women run 158 companies and workers associations in Afghanistan, says the Afghan Women Business Federation.
"Despite a wide variety of barriers and challenges, Afghan women have made remarkable progress in business in recent years." said Jaweed, who herself runs a silk garment factory in Kabul.
According to Jaweed, women run 158 commercial companies and workers associations in Afghanistan. In recent years they made inroads in fields like food and fruit processing, production of silk, carpets, precious stones and clothing.
Subsequent international exposure at fairs and exhibitions has strengthened the hand of budding entrepreneurs. Other accomplishments include the AWBF's creation of the certification trademark brand called “AfghanMark”. The label is carried by exported carpets made by Afghan women who are employed by women-owned or women-managed carpet-making businesses that are members of the federation.
Foreign assistance fuels the trend, including initiatives like the Goldman Sachs '10,000 Businesswomen Program', which is administered in Afghanistan by the American University in Kabul. According to the dedicated website, the programme aims "to provide a business and management education to underserved female entrepreneurs in developing countries."
Graduates and staff of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Business Women initiative from the American University in Kabul.
Jaweed says around 150 women are currently enrolled in the 10,000 Businesswomen initiative. After completing their training at the university, participants prepare a business plan and are then hooked up with donors to receive support and investment. Professors guide and help the graduates for another three months to ensure continuity.
Fatima, a carpenter by training, is one of its graduates. "I now employ 73 women in my workshop," she says. Another graduate, Fatema, is believed to be a pioneer in female management in the construction business.
Yet despite the progress, Jaweed says Afghan businesswomen still face substantial disadvantages compared to their male counterparts, primarily the lack of access to private and government capital.
"Women should be given loans requiring less stringent guarantees by banks," she says, citing harsh existing constraints like demands for provision of two large supermarkets or a growing company as security on loans. "Do you think that in our society a woman can give a supermarket or a big company as a guarantee to a loan?”
It's a problem she has faced personally at her silk production factory. "We still do not have a dying and paint producing laboratory to produce better quality and more colourful products,” she says. "We still use machinery from generations ago."
"Despite a wide variety of barriers and challenges, Afghan women have made remarkable progress in business in recent years." Malawi Jaweed, Afghan Women Business Federation.
Fellow programme graduate Layla Arabshahi wants quota-based participation of women in large business development projects. She believes able women should have a 20 per cent stake, which will allow them to gain access to world markets.
But Arabshahi is more hesitant when assessing progress in recent years.
“Women have so far failed to come out strong and make their presence felt as people who work for themselves and their communities in the field of business," said Arabshahi, who as well as working as a trainer at the AWBF, manages the Social Services Center for Women. This has 2,500 members and offices in Kabul, Bamiyan and Ghazni.
She criticizes the lack of real assistance for women by institutions and authorities like the Ministry of Commerce and the Chamber of Commerce of Afghanistan. As well as the problem of eligibility to secure bank credits, she notes that industrial parks fail to allocate premises for specifically female-run enterprises. And in a country with strict conventions on the segregation of the sexes, this is a great oversight.
But she cites one thriving example, Kabul's Bagh-e-Zanana (the Female Garden). This retail centre run exclusively by women can be a model for expansion, she believes.
A female store owner in Kabul (Photo: Fawzia Ihsan)
Meanwhile, others like Lida at the Rasooli shopping centre will keep building on their achievements. "I am very proud to have served as a role-model for many other women who now work here," says Lida.
Najiba is a saleswoman who was initially nervous at taking on the role some eight months ago. She estimates that at least 30 per cent of all salespeople in the complex are now women.
“When people see me, they say it is good, that Afghanistan has developed. When I hear such comments, it makes me happy, ” says Najiba. But such are the times that she too requested not to be photographed face-on, or that her real name is published.
It's small steps of progress still, acknowledges Jaweed of the AWBF. But she is convinced that such small-scale activity will also help pave the way: “These opportunities are very limited but can be valuable steps towards important and major changes in the future."