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Trading places

Nang Durrani
In a province where women are struggling to assert their basic rights, a female shopowner and widow is making a modest name for herself as a business owner, undeterred by tradition or local expectations.
4.09.2013  |  Kandahar
Leading the way for Kandahar women. Bibi Gullah, a shop owner and family breadwinner. (Photos: Nang Durrani)
Leading the way for Kandahar women. Bibi Gullah, a shop owner and family breadwinner. (Photos: Nang Durrani)

In a bustling part of Kandahar City vehicles speed by in dust clouds while traders, all men, entice customers to their wares. But look hard enough and among the kiosks in Zarra Sanzeri Ada you will see a woman making her mark in business too, selling food, sweets and household goods from her own stall.

“Working is better than begging,” says Bibi Gullah, 52, a former mujahedin’s wife who was widowed in the 1980s and is now believed to be the only female shop owner in Kandahar Province.

“My husband Mir Ahmad was wounded after his unit attacked a Russian tank. Three days later he passed away in hospital,” says Gullah.

Against the odds

The mother of five swiftly became the family’s breadwinner, but then lost two of her sons in a traffic accident on the Kandahar-Herat Highway four years ago.

“My other two sons are heroin addicts and they cannot work,” says Gullah, who has married off her two remaining sons in the hope that the added family stability will help the others to kick their addictions. Gullah’s daughter is also married.

In conservative Kandahar women are perceived primarily as mothers and housewives, and female entrepreneurship is frowned upon. So Gullah's unique status as the only woman shop owner is a challenge to local perceptions.

“Even though some people don’t see her work positively, many nonetheless treat her nicely for her courage and being an elder, always buying from her as a gesture of respect,” says Janan, 35, owner of a petrol station next door to Gullah’s store.

Cult following

Gullah was known before she opened her store 10 years ago for her ‘shorumbay’ – a local cucumber, salt, water and sour cream delicacy – and her distinct recipe helped her inherit a basis of loyal customers for her store and insulate her from criticism.

“Back then I was a customer and I am still a customer,” says Nasir Ahmad, a Kandahar resident. “I buy all my households needs from her. She is good to me and gives me discounts.”.

From black hair to white

A 2013 report by the US Embassy in Kabul on gender equality in Kandahar Province highlights the plight of female breadwinners.

“With income generating opportunities largely open only to men, vulnerable families in southern Afghanistan with no male members suffer tremendous economic hardship,” says the report. More than 600,000 women live in Kandahar Province - according to data from the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) - of which only a very small percentage has employment.

But Bibi Gullah, who also supports seven grandsons, isn’t going to shut up shop because of a bad statistic. “My black hair turned white because of work but I think it is shameful that some women are begging in our country,” she says proudly.

It took a couple of decades to get to this stage, but her business now turns enough profit to plan ahead, Gullah says. And apart from to provide for the future of her children and grandchildren, her dream is to refurbish the shop like the more modern stores in the city.

'No tax' sponsorship

The government has never directly supported her financially, although Gullah thanks them for their absence.

“The municipality help because they don’t collect any taxes from me,” she says, unsure if this is in direct support of her achievements as a female entrepreneur, or plain oversight. .

But not everybody welcomes a different face on the high street. Mohammad Salim, a white-bearded shopkeeper and neighbour of Gullah's, told Afghanistan Today that he doesn't approve: “Women are supposed to sit at home and do household work. She has two adult sons, she should sit in her house and her boys should do the shop-keeping."