Women in Business: Afghan Women Gathering Strength

When photographer Peggy Kelsey left Austin for Afghanistan, she feared that she wouldn’t find any women willing to talk with her, and be photographed. “The opposite turned out to be true,” she recalls in the resulting book, Gathering Strength: Conversations with Afghan Women.

“Many women were eager to share their experiences and didn’t mind having their pictures taken. I began to see that especially for uneducated, impoverished women, having a Westerner come all the way to Afghanistan to listen to them and acknowledge their pain and difficulties could be empowering, affirming, and healing.”

Here’s an excerpt from Peggy’s remarkable new book:

Peggy Kelsey: What prompted you to start your own business?

Muzhgan: It was my dream to be a business owner. Since childhood, I was always trying to be the leader of the other children and later became the leader in my office. I never wanted to work under someone else. I prefer to work by myself and for myself. That’s why business was the only thing I could do.

Peggy: Did your family encourage you and your dream?

Muzhgan: Yes, of course. My family always told me, “If you want to do business, then you must not wait. You can start now, anytime you want.” So I started my first business in 2003 when I was 18.

Najia: I wanted to be a businesswoman and had an idea for a business, but little knowledge about how to start. I studied business administration at Kabul University, then got another chance with the 10,000 Women program at American University, so I went there to learn. That program helped me a lot. Now I know how to make a business plan and market my product.

Peggy: What inspired you to create a business?

Kubra Z: I became a member of AWBC (Afghan Women’s Business Council) in 2003 and then decided to start a business association of Herati women. I had my first business experience in an AWBC workshop with UN Habitat and there I learned how to start my own business. After some time, I got the idea to start a small association to encourage Herati women who already have their own businesses to expand.

Habbiba: I had a position in the government and a really nice life here in Afghanistan. But when the mujahidin took over, it became very dangerous for anyone who had worked for the communists, so we had to leave. We left Afghanistan suddenly and could take hardly anything with us. In Pakistan, our only alternative was to move into a tent in a refugee camp. I had always been interested in business, but it became a matter of survival there. I had to do something to make our life better so we could get out of our tent. I asked the people in the camp what they needed. They wanted things like candles, soap, and sugar, so I went to the bazaar and brought those things back to the tents to sell. There were some Afghans who had brought their cows and chickens and would make butter and cheese that they sold in the market. When I first started this business I made 100 Pakistani rupees and later 1000. Within six months, I was able to move my family out of our tent to live in a house in Peshawar. Through this experience I slowly, slowly got to know more about business and what makes it successful.

“If I were undereducated, nobody would listen to me.
Unfortunately, there are many uneducated women here
that have to put up with nobody listening to them,
and they’re not strong enough
to talk about their problems.

Peggy: What has your employment meant to you and your family?

Najia (in 2010): My husband respects me, especially after I told him that I am not a woman who will blindly follow what he or my family says. I will listen to them and then I will decide. I know and understand my rights under Islam and Afghan law. My husband’s family knows that I am working at a high level with the government. If I were undereducated, nobody would listen to me. Unfortunately, there are many uneducated women here that have to put up with nobody listening to them, and they’re not strong enough to talk about their problems.

Peggy: You are so resolute. What gave you your courage, what made you so strong?

Najia: I think I learned a lot from my situation and from society. I grew up without men. My father died when I was four. Because I have no brothers, my mother made me go to the bazaar to buy what we needed. I was the youngest child, and if my teenage sisters went out of the house, people would think they were not good. I always had to stand up for myself, so I learned to be very strong.

Peggy: Do you have any advice for your (future) daughters?

Rahela: One of my daughters and my son are in school and I’m trying to provide them with equal opportunities. My daughter is very strong even though she’s only in the third grade. Sometimes I ask her to do something at home and she tells me, “I will, but my brother should do it, too.” And her brother agrees.

Muzhgan: If my daughter wanted to become a businesswoman, I would advise her to fully understand business, the Afghan market, and computers. It would also be important for her to get financial as well as human support. Then she could be successful.

Habbiba: I tell all children, including my daughter, to get a good education so they can work and help the family.

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