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Female Entrepreneurs in Afghanistan Inspire Hope by Starting Their Own Businesses

Mariyam Omerkhil in her office at Zartaw Viewing Company in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Sonia Azatyar / Truthdig)
Sonia Azatyar

By Sonia Azatyar

Mariyam Omerkhil in her office at Zartaw Viewing Company in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Sonia Azatyar / Truthdig)

Mariyam Omerkhil is an Afghan who doesn’t conform to society’s expectations. After completing her degree in literature, Omerkhil has worked to become a businesswoman.

Despite many obstacles, she now runs Zartaw Viewing Company in Kabul. The private company, whose main products are Afghan dresses (both traditional garb and modern dresses made in Afghanistan), has nine employees and one female representative in each of the country’s 34 provinces.

Omerkhil’s goal is to strengthen and sustain women’s economic status throughout the country. But she knows most women do not have the option to follow her path.

According to Omerkhil, the lack of economic independence within Afghanistan’s conservative society is the main challenge for Afghan women. Cultural and social behaviors, as well as outright discrimination, are barriers for women in business.

Omerkhil herself has faced many challenges as a businesswoman. Though her company is successful, she has received no funding from donors or the government.

“Businesses being run by women are likely to skyrocket,” she said. “But while women want to enter into the business sphere, there are no social norms that support it—you can’t imagine how tough it is to be a businesswoman in Afghanistan.”

Her line of work means long hours, traveling, holding regular meetings with partners, and communicating with customers and inventors. All the standard challenges of running a business are made more difficult by Afghanistan’s conservative values, she said, such as the custom that a woman cannot travel without a male companion, particularly in rural areas of the country.

Even if a woman has the support of a partner or co-worker, discrimination and security remain major issues in the workplace. Omerkhil considers herself fortunate that she has not yet faced the prejudice many other women experience from sexual harassment, rape and loss of a good reputation, or shaming. This shameful feeling keeps women from going outside the home for work and getting an education. Omerhkil is aware of these forces in Afghan society—and she knows that ironing out the issues will take time.

Self-confidence is key, she said. Without it, women struggle to find economic independence, especially those living in rural areas. Many women also don’t believe they are capable of working within the cultural value system of Afghanistan, which does not support female empowerment. In addition to these ideological and philosophical challenges, limited business skills and capital present ongoing problems for Afghan women.

Omerkhil used to be one of those girls living in a village. Now, she is an inspiration to them—a brave Afghan woman, charting a new course of action even as the Taliban regime seeks the continued subjugation of women.

“As Afghan women, we have the right to an education, to own businesses and to be self-confident,” Omerkhil said. “In order to get an education, I left behind a difficult home situation. I greatly pity the village girls who are unable to go to school.”

Under the Taliban, few girls have been able to attend work or school outside their homes, so many are home-schooled in secret.

“Afghan girls have a right to education, and nobody will deprive us of going to school,” Omerkhil said. “These girls’ dreams are tangible. … They remind me of the need to be patient and brave.”

After decades of conflict, the environment for Afghan women has changed. Parents in the war-torn country now can envision a brighter future for their children. That starts with getting an education, which was much more unrealistic before. In 2001, fewer than 1 million students attended public school in Afghanistan, and just 10 percent were girls. In 2008, 8 million students attended school, with 39 percent girls. Today, there are 9.2 million students, and 40 percent are girls. So, progress is being made.

But women’s involvement in business is still new territory.

“When you think of business in Afghanistan, most of it is run by men,” said Arifa Paikar, a lecturer and professor at Kabul University. “But recently, women’s recognition is growing, and the international community is paying close attention to women, which makes our work more credible. In the past, the women were left out of the decision-making process, but now Afghan women know they can take part in the political and economic process.”

Maliha Jaamih, a social adviser at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, agrees. The ministry provides women with training in labeling products and setting up effective displays for markets, and offers trips abroad to learn up-to-date skills.

“The huge difficulty for women in business is security [safety issues],” Jaamih said. “It’s a remarkable hurdle. But despite these difficulties, numerous women are running private businesses across the country. Even the well-known saffron exporter is a woman. So is the country’s head dry-fruit dealer.”

And, according to Paikar, the number of Afghan businesswomen is growing. “At first, the idea of seeing more than 100 women involved in private business was implausible,” she said. Now, female entrepreneurship in Afghanistan is a reality.

Hamida Sapai is one such entrepreneur. She owns Dukma, a private company that makes women’s and men’s clothing. She established the company on her own five months ago. The clothes are affordable, and Dukma’s customer base is growing every day.

“My work has its challenges,” said Sapai, who studied journalism and worked with media outlets until job insecurity caused her to change direction. “Discrimination and lack of government attention are the most exhausting aspects of women’s involvement in business.” I too have faced many obstacles in my industry. Being a journalist in Afghanistan is hard for anyone, and if you’re a woman working for a mainstream media outlet, the job is even more difficult. Female journalists, like all Afghan women, face the same issues of inequality, and harassment is a constant battle. Since the National Unity Government came to power in 2014, many cases of violence against female journalists have been registered, including two incidents in Mazar-e-Sharif, a northern Afghan city. One night, a gunman stormed a radio station and smashed equipment before escaping. In the other incident, a journalist was stabbed and killed by assailants while working for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force radio station.

Despite these difficulties and challenges, I’ve wanted to pursue journalism since seventh grade, and I’ve been working hard to make that happen. Many people have tried to discourage me—especially my brothers. They were concerned for my safety, and for how family and friends would feel about my choice.

To this day, they still want me to choose a safer career path. But I’m able to thrive as a journalist with my mother’s encouragement and my own wish to fight for gender equality. Even when it seems that the world is against me, I carry on, working hard for my mother and myself.

Many Afghans have fled the country because of widespread safety issues, corruption and economic depravity, but none of that makes me want to leave. When I walk the streets of Kabul, sometimes I see a beautiful city with people smiling and joyous. Then there are days when I see children upset and struggling, with no guarantee of a stable future. I realize I need to help them in some way.

That is my passion. As a journalist, I want to help give my people a stronger voice than ever before.

I feel hopeful for my future and the future of other Afghan girls.

Sonia Azatyar was born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan. She began her career in 2011 as an intern at Afghanistan’s Ministry of Higher Education before moving to other divisions, including the Ministry of Justice. Now she works as an operations officer with the Ministry of Education and is a freelance journalist, writing recently for The Associated Press. She is an alumna of Sahar Speaks, an organization that helps publish the work of Afghan female journalists in international news outlets.

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