Less than a year before President Obama’s stated date for the beginning of military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the blizzard of bad news confronting the country’s women feels endless and unstoppable. But there is another, far less reported reality worthy of attention: Against a daunting constellation of obstacles and dangers, Afghan women are making progress, often quietly and to little fanfare. Their efforts span a range of fields, from entrepreneurs venturing into business and helping other women do the same, to young women serving in the Afghan army and police. From midwives saving women’s lives to community leaders fighting to make politicians hear women’s voices. Though their vocations differ, they share a determination to create something better for themselves and the next generation.
In an airy two-story house behind a metal gatewatched over by an armed guard in Afghanistan’s capital city, Fatima Hakim Zada sits in a hulking black leather executive chair in front of a newish silver Dell computer and explains why she went into the construction business.
“I was in Afghanistan and I saw the civil war; I saw everything damaged and destroyed,” she says. “This thought was always in my head: ‘I have to be in construction; I have to help improve the conditions here.’”
Though barely in her late 20s, Hakim Zada speaks, in her tentative English, like a veteran entrepreneur. She got her start in business at 8 years old when the Taliban took over Kabul. She and her sister and mother launched a carpet company in their living room, providing work for more than 50 women in their neighborhood. Once the Taliban left and the international community arrived, the young woman took what she had learned from her work and headed to university. But before long, she was back in business, while continuing her studies.
Demo Ltd., the firm Hakim Zada started with her uncle in 2002, now counts 75 employees and has completed more than 20 construction projects across the country, including roads and airports. Hakim Zada graduated from Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women program—which offers five weeks or more of management training—and is now mentoring other aspiring businesswomen. She is also helping make a business plan for a kindergarten her younger sister hopes to open.
Hakim Zada is hardly alone in embracing entrepreneurship as a path to progress for women and their families. Six years ago, Bakht Nazira Niazi started her own business selling women’s clothing and shawls. She expanded into a Kabul storefront she now shares with her husband, who has launched a line of women’s jewelry. Both have taken part in the New York nonprofit Bpeace’s program for high-potential entrepreneurs. Niazi exports to U.S. customers, helps other women in Kabul and the country’s provinces launch their own ventures, and has even joined other businesswomen in lobbying the Afghan government for more women- and business-friendly policies.
“The economy is the basis of everything in our families,” says Niazi. “If you are working and you have a good job, you can educate your children and you will have far less problems in society.”
“We want to be policy makers; we don’t want to be symbolic presences,” said human rights activist and Voice of Women director Suraya Pakzad.
She was speaking in unusually direct terms during a question and answer session with Afghan Finance Minister Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal and U.N. Special Representative for Afghanistan Staffan de Mistura at a women’s assembly hosted by the Afghan Women’s Network and EQUALITY for Peace and Democracy in July. Women from around the country came together to share and collect their ideas and to demand a seat at the Kabul Conference, a gathering of more than 40 foreign ministers hosted by Afghan President Hamid Karzai with the goal of laying out a national economic development plan.
“It seems that every time there is an international gathering,” said Pakzad, “we have to go and find money and raise our voices because our government has marginalized us.”
Just a moment later, another woman at the back of the grand ballroom at Kabul’s only four-star hotel, the Serena, rose to ask the finance minister why he was so “scared of hiring more women in government?”
In the end, with pressure from the international community, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the women won a speaking role at the Kabul Conference for Palwasha Hassan, a well-known rights activist who helped found the Afghan Women’s Network.
“Although full and equal rights have been granted to women under the constitution, cultural patriarchy is still in control of all changes, instead of being forced to change itself,” Hassan said in her statement to world leaders gathered at the conference. “The leadership of the country should take bold steps to break these cultural barriers and set the example of genuine equality.”
Genuine equality is the goal of many Afghan women now serving in government. With help from a quota system enshrined in the country’s constitution, women now occupy 68 out of 249 seats in the lower house of parliament, and 26 out of 102 seats in the upper chamber. As many as 400 women were running in September’s parliamentary elections, an increase of more than 15 percent from five years earlier. Disturbingly, many have been forced to stay indoors by Taliban threats, and at the end of August, the bodies of five men supporting women parliamentary candidate Fawzia Gilani were found in Herat.
Despite the dangers and the threats, however, women say their job is to push ahead in the fight for their right—and that of their daughters—to contribute to Afghanistan. They know the international community will not be in the country forever, and they want to make as many gains as they can while the world is still watching.
GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON is deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her first book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, will be published in March by HarperCollins.
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