Afghan women are nothing if not resilient and resourceful. After decades of war and oppression, it is impossible to meet an Afghan woman who does not have a heart- wrenching story to tell. More striking than the stories of fear, pain, and loss are the stories of survival, doggedness, and entrepreneurship. As Afghanistan struggles with the direction of its country, Afghan businesswomen are paying close attention to anything that could impact the future of their businesses.
Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, women-run handcraft businesses and non-profit organizations have multiplied. Government programs and international aid groups have seen handcraft production as a sort of low-hanging fruit in the range of options for women’s economic development. Although the government’s and international aid community’s approach to development of the craft sector as been haphazard at best, the incredible will and intrepidity of Afghan women, as well as support from some notable local and international organizations, has resulted in a selection of strong women-run handcraft businesses.
In order to understand how far businesswomen have come in the past several years, it is necessary to understand the obstacles they have had to overcome. Under the repressive Taliban regime (1996-2001) when it was forbidden for women to work, go to school, or even leave home without a male relative, businesswomen were forced to close their businesses or find clandestine ways of operating. Women desperate to keep their businesses going in order to feed their children found creative, albeit dangerous ways to use their handcraft skills to generate income. Women would go door to door collecting items for tailoring or embroidery. They would work by candlelight in the evening hours embroidering dresses for weddings for private customers. Without direct access to the marketplace, most women were at the mercy of male relatives to sell their products and return the money to the family. A woman could work for weeks on a product only to receive nothing or very little for her work.
After 2001, as Afghan women began figuratively and literally to shed their burqas, women-run businesses, many handcraft or tailoring related, began to emerge into public view. Despite the ease in restrictions on women, it wasn’t easy for women to start and run businesses (and it still isn’t). Not only did most women lack formal business training, knowledge of and access to markets, access to raw materials, design know-how, and an understanding of quality control, they also faced cultural resistance, backlash from their families, and one of the most uneven businesses playing fields in the world.
Despite the obstacles, women slowly expanded their businesses. Some had the support of their husbands and families, some had only their will. Because much of international aid money in Afghanistan cannot be given to private small businesses, businesswomen started cooperatives or non-profit organizations focused on the training of women (and sometimes men, too) in a handcraft skill. The businesswomen learned by trial and error and from international and local experts how to design for the market, the importance of producing consistent, quality products, how to cost and price their products correctly.
The growing size of the expatriate community of foreign government and aid workers with lots of money to spend and very little to spend it on provided a potentially lucrative market for the right product. However, that market isn’t easy to access since expats’ movements are severely restricted for security reasons and Afghans cannot easily access government and NGO compounds. The more advanced businesses are now exporting their products, not an easy feat given the lack of an adequate export infrastructure in Afghanistan, and very few international buyers willing to source from Afghanistan. Regardless of the obstacles, a number of businesswomen have been able to find markets for their products, have expanded their businesses, and have created jobs for thousands of Afghans. Women have gained stature in their families and communities because of their business success, giving them more say over the management of their households and the education of their children.
It is important to acknowledge the vast difference between urban and rural circumstances in Afghanistan. In urban communities there is often a higher degree of acceptance for women entrepreneurs. And in more traditional rural communities there is sometimes no acceptance at all. In either case, it would be difficult for a woman to engage in business against the wishes of her family – a factor which currently limits the possibilities for women entrepreneurs in a fundamental way.
A law recently enacted by the Karzai government for its Shia population puts a legislative form to the traditional family limitations by now deeply ingrained in Afghan life. According to Human Rights Watch, the law “gives a husband the right to withdraw basic maintenance from his wife, including food, if she refuses to obey his sexual demands; grants guardianship of children exclusively to their fathers and grandfathers; and requires women to get permission from their husbands to work.” It is understandable that many businesswomen are concerned what the future may hold for them and their businesses.
Family and legal pressures notwithstanding, the gains made by businesswomen in the Afghan handcraft sector are notable and admirable. The women should be encouraged to strengthen their businesses and greatly expand their reach into global markets. Access to the multi-million dollar global market for handcrafted goods would create thousands of jobs in Afghanistan. Women are an essential part to the continued development of the sector.
It is incumbent, however, on the international community to look for community-based methods to foster change and enhance women’s rights so that Afghan businesswomen can do what they are capable of: bringing Afghan handcrafts onto the global stage and enjoying the economic benefits of doing so.
Kirsten Bunch, former Director of Programs at Aid to Artisans, recently joined the Rainforest Alliance as Manager of Government and Multilateral Resource Development. She has a Master of Public Administration and a Master of Arts in Latin American Studies from NYU.