Afganistan encourages women to become business savvy

By Andrew Maykuth MCT

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan – In a country where most women still don’t show their faces in public, the government offer seemed revolutionary: Free market stalls for women to encourage them to start their own businesses.

But there were strings attached. The seven shops proposed were located in a remote section of Bamiyan’s bazaar – far from customers, and far from anyone who might be offended by independent Afghan women.

“The deputy governor told us we should be in the far corner so that nobody bothers us, so they won’t see our faces,” said Fatima Hassanzada, 27, the sole female shop owner in this mountainous provincial capital in central Afghanistan.

So much for social engineering. The six other women interested gave their market stalls to male relatives. Hassanzada’s cosmetics business survived because she traded her shop for a better location in the bazaar. “If I cared about my face bothering people,” she said, “I wouldn’t be in business.”

Such are the steps forward for women in Afghanistan.

Five years ago, when the repressive Islamist government was ousted, women celebrated the end of restrictions that banished them from jobs, schools or even walking alone on the street without a male family member. But social change has come neither dramatically nor as easily as some expected.

Afghanistan has a new constitution that guarantees equality for women – a rare declaration in the Islamic world. And nearly 2 million girls have returned to schools and women have returned to the workplace, including to Parliament, where a quarter of the members are women.

But women say the new freedoms are largely superficial – that profound cultural restrictions remain. Most women still wear burkas in public, and those who don’t must endure stares and hisses on the street.

“We do have rights on paper, but we don’t have them in reality,” said Fatima Kazimyan, Bamiyan’s representative for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

What quickly became clear after the Taliban’s ouster five years ago was that Afghanistan was not going to return to the ways of the 1980s, when the Soviet-backed government diminished Islamic influences, and women discarded their veils.

Afghanistan and the Islamic world have changed a great deal in the last two decades, and conservative forces reacting against secularism have gained power. Though the Taliban governed Afghanistan for only five years, they expressed a sentiment that resonates deeply in this male-dominated society.

“Our society is very conservative and we have to pay attention to that,” said Habiba Sarabi, the governor of Bamiyan, the only woman to head one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. It was Sarabi’s idea to give the market stalls to women.

Older women who experienced both Afghanistan’s liberal reforms and the Taliban’s response to them are mindful that any liberalization sparks a harsh reaction. Afghan’s king Amanullah Shah tried to modernize the country in the 1920s and was forced to abdicate.