Aiding Afghanistan with Style


SPECIAL REPORTFEMALE ENTREPRENEURSHIP

A three-part series on the efforts of the Business Council for Peace, a group of American businesswomen, to foster female-owned businesses in the world's conflict-prone regions

Peace Through Entrepreneurship

Aiding Afghanistan with Style

Big City Smarts for Afghani Women

It's dubbed the "Style Road Trip." In late May, some two dozen Afghani businesswomen arrived in New York to participate in an intensive three-week program designed to promote and develop entrepreneurship among Afghanistan's women. For most of them, the program, sponsored by the Business Council for Peace (Bpeace), was their first trip outside their war-torn nation.

The participants are mostly engaged in apparel, accessories, and home décor manufacturing businesses. The program includes visits to top American designers such as Eileen Fisher and celebrity favorite Behnaz Sarafpour, seminars at the Fashion Institute of Technology and and side trips to the beach for a Memorial Day barbecue and sightseeing.

ECONOMIC REVITALIZATION. The journey from Kabul to Manhattan has been filled with extraordinary challenges. The war between Muslim muhajadeen and the Soviet Union, which invaded Afghanistan in 1979, left the country practically in ruin. Under the fundamentalist Taliban, which ruled from 1994 to 2001, women were deprived of their most basic human rights. They were not allowed to attend school, work outside of the home, deal with male shopkeepers, or travel unescorted by male relatives. And women were not permitted to appear outside of their homes unless fully covered head to toe in a burqa.

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan a month after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, driving the Taliban from power. Emerging from years of isolation and deprivation, a number of enterprising women have established their own businesses and are contributing to the revitalization of the country's devastated economy. Here are a few of the stories of some of the Style Road Trip participants.

Laila

After living as a refugee in Pakistan for 13 years, Laila returned to Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in 2003. (Bpeace has asked, because of tensions and security issues in Afghanistan, that BusinessWeek Online use only the women's first names.) "I heard that the Karzai government would bring peace and the Taliban had left," she says.

Having spent those refugee years working variously as a teacher, carpet designer, in marketing and sales, and as an administrator for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and later Medecins Sans Frontieres on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Laila, 36, decided that she wanted start her own jewelry business.

Although she had put together $4,000 from her savings and pension from UNICEF, she still faced a series of economic and social hurdles. For one, some of her in-laws insisted that a woman should stay at home. But she persevered, with the support of her husband, taking English and computer classes. Eventually she opened a small jewelry store and importing business. "I saw that there was a good market in Kabul," she says.

ASKING LOTS OF QUESTIONS. Slowly, the business has grown, although she still encounters difficulties such as the bandits at the border who "ask" for money in order to cross into Afghanistan. Laila now sells jewelry to a number of Kabul shops, and in the past three months she says she has earned about $1,500.

"I want to empower my economy. I don't have a house in Kabul. I need a house for my children so that they will have a good future," she says. To that end, Laila hopes to increase her business by opening up a number of shops in Kabul and in the other provinces, as well as to export internationally. "I want to have a store at the Kabul airport," she says. She also intends to open up a jewelry-making school in order to create more jobs and business.

While in New York, Laila intends to visit a number of jewelry craftsmen to see what designs in both gold and silver are popular with consumers. She also wants to spend time at a jewelry school to learn how it's run. "I plan on asking a lot of questions," she says. "I plan to start this center, and I need to learn a lot of things. If you want to establish a jewelry business you have to ask questions of the experts."

Mahboba

For 20 years, despite the restrictions and danger of punishment, Mahboba, 48, worked with other women in Kabul and Mazar al-Sharif, establishing a cooperative to develop and promote women-made handicrafts. While her husband and children fled to Pakistan, she remained in Afghanistan. It was important to her; she says to help other women. She saw great success before the Taliban took over and secretly worked with women during their rule. "I've always helped other women to learn about business."

Having worked in a number of cottage industries and having aided women in various capacities to help them earn a living, Mahboba discovered that there are areas which need to be addressed if women are to become fully integrated members of business society and to advance. In a country barely out of the veil, women still do not travel freely without male relatives. This puts a limit on the ability of female entrepreneurs to conduct business.

Mahboba's current goal is to open a chain of women's guesthouses across the country. "Many women travel," she says. "I want them to be in a comfortable place." Among the amenities at her guesthouses, she plans to install Internet access, beauty parlors, libraries, and an all-women's gym. "Even women who aren't staying there can use the gym two times a week."

"THE OPPORTUNITY TO CREATE SOMETHING." She hopes to open her first guesthouse in Kabul by the end of the year and then roll out to the country's main cities and along the border, as women often travel to Pakistan and Iran. And once this gets off the ground, Mahboba says that there are even larger possibilities: A chain of women's guesthouses in Muslim countries where women need to travel safely.

"I want us to have better businesses, to make good money, and for all women to [have] financially sustainable [lives]," she says. "We have the skills, but we've not had many good opportunities. Now we have the opportunity to create something."

Rangina

Born in Kandahar, Rangina and her family fled the country when the Soviets invaded. They lived as refugees in Pakistan for seven years, where she says they felt like "subhumans." Although the family returned to Afghanistan, their homecoming was brief. The Taliban forced her to stop studying, threatening to burn her and her sister's faces with acid if they continued going to school.

In 1988, the family moved to Arlington, Va. There Rangina graduated from high school with top honors and went onto to the University of Virginia where she earned a double major in women and religious studies. In 2003, she returned to Kandahar to, as she says, "to help the cause of women."

She started Da Kandahar, an income-generating project that employs 307 women, who work from home making embroidered clothing. "These are all poor women," she says, "many live in huts of mud, they have lots of kids, too many to feed.

"WOMEN CAN BE PROVIDERS." While in New York, Rangina, 29, hopes to learn skills that will enable her to develop a comprehensive business plan, to learn more about design, and gain skills necessary to open her business to international markets for her collective's products. "With the Bpeace [program,] we can learn how to build independent businesses and stand on our two feet," she says. Although only at the beginning stage, Rangina wants to be able to help as many women as she can gain economically viable skills.

Already she has seen the positive impact that women-owned businesses can make. "There's one woman working for me who has 13 daughters and one son. In our society boys are preferred. But the son is spoiled, and the husband is old and sits and does nothing," Rangina recounts.

"This woman and eight of her daughters work for us," she continues. "They're able to buy food, medicine, shoes, and provide for the needs of the house. Now it's the girls who are seen as economic contributors. It increases their value in the household. This has helped the men to see that women can be providers, too."

Baktnizar

During the Taliban years, Baktnizar, 28, supported her husband and four children in rural Lagman province by embroidering, working until midnight on most days. After the Taliban was overthrown, the family moved to Kabul where she earned her teaching degree and taught Pashto part-time, making $50 a month.

"It was not enough," she says. "I thought if I had my own business we'd be able to do better. I was always interested in clothing and design, and it was something I knew how to do."

The enterprising seamstress joined the Afghan Women Business Assn. and met up with Bpeace members who arrived in the country in 2004. They helped her apply for a CARE International grant to support her business idea. Today, Baktnizar operates a ready-to-wear shop, Khaber Khush, which means "good news," in Kabul, overseeing 36 employees and earning three times as much as she did as a teacher.

With her affiliation with Bpeace and her participation in the Style Road Trip, Baktnizar hopes to learn about Western markets and tastes to be able to export, improve quality control, and to find better raw materials to work with. Eventually, she wants to open a chain of stores with locations in every province in Afghanistan. "If you're going to have goals and dreams," she says. "They might as well be big." And they all must start somewhere.


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