Afghan Women Entrepreneurs Battle to Retain Economic Freedom

Editor’s note: To mark the anniversary of the Taliban’s second takeover of Afghanistan and withdrawal of NATO troops, Just Security is publishing a series of essays on the developments of the last year and the prospects for the future of Afghanistan.

Since Aug. 15, 2021, Afghan women have endured a difficult year. No matter where they were or what professions they occupied, over the past 20 years Afghan women had gained their rights and access to various sectors in Afghanistan at great and sometimes unnoticed speed. But all of that momentum was halted on Aug. 15, 2021.

Nearly 4 million girls were enrolled in schools by 2020 The increase in girls in secondary education was particularly marked, with nearly 40 percent enrolled in 2018 compared with 6 percent in 2003, according to the UN children’s agency, UNICEF. And despite intense pressures that blocked some girls from pursuing higher education, female students made up around 24 percent of public university students in 2020.

The gains achieved by Afghan women and girls were not limited to elementary or higher education. Women had also achieved greater participation in politics, media, sports, business, public and private sector jobs, and leadership. There was no sector as I remember in which women had not made their way. Afghanistan’s youngest generation, especially young girls, saw women in various spheres of life and could begin to dream of becoming one of those prominent women – whether a parliament member, a minister, a business owner, an athlete, a TV anchor, a doctor, a university professor and the list goes on.

Women had always served in the background of businesses in Afghanistan but in the last 20 years, women made remarkable strides in the foreground of the private sector, with especially fast, hopeful, and dramatic gains in the last five years. The Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AWCCI) had created a database of women-owned businesses in the country and conducted a survey in 2020. The survey findings showed that 26 percent of the 2,471 formal / licensed businesses owned and run by women were registered between the years 2017-2020. About half of these 2,471 licensed businesses were in non-traditional sectors for women, such as information technology, media, logistics, construction, manufacturing, processing and packaging dry fruits and spices, jewelery exporting, fitness and fashion services, private schools, private day care services, restaurants, travel agencies and many more. The survey also showed that there were over 54,000 informal businesses owned and run by women throughout the country. All together these businesses had created over 130,000 jobs plus employing themselves and helping another over 100,000 women artisans in the rural areas to sell their work in the cities. Afghan women have represented themselves in regional and international platforms as business owners and economic actors. During the months of June and July 2021 there was intensive planning and preparation underway for Afghan women businesses to present their products at the Dubai Expo that was scheduled to start in October 2021 and remain open until April 2022.

But, in August 2021, the momentum created by the last 20 years was suddenly halted by the return of the Taliban to power across Afghanistan. The Taliban’s policies on a daily basis restricted women and girls and took opportunities from them. They banned women from public jobs, they banned girls’ secondary education. After a few months of ruling the country, they banned women moving without a male companion. Initially women stood up to demand their rights, pouring out onto the streets to demonstrate almost on a daily basis. But the Taliban soon banned women from demonstrations as well, subjecting protesters to public violence, and identifying and arresting those who led the first demonstrations. Media coverage of these protests has also been banned. More broadly, over 100 media outlets have been closed in the last year and women have been restricted from appearing in media.

However, although the Taliban have had the leverage to shut doors on women in some fields, they have not shuttered all women-run businesses, nor issued edicts forbidding women from engaging in business. This is likely because businesses benefit them by paying taxes – now, to the Taliban government of the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan– and created jobs. In the midst of Afghanistan’s economic collapse and ongoing international isolation, the Taliban would not want to take the blame for the loss of the jobs created and economic activities enabled by these businesses. Indeed, it has become clear from how they have treated women’s traditional businesses over the last year that they would like to use this sector to whitewash themselves and claim that they are supportive of women. For example, several exhibitions highlighting Afghan products have taken place in Kabul, most recently to mark the anniversary of the Taliban takeover. At the first of these exhibitions, on the Eid al-Adha holiday in April, the Taliban’s official political spokesman tweeted an invitation to “all national and international media to collaborate on marketing news coverage for the Afghan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry at the Eid Bazaar Exhibition.” During the second exhibition, a Taliban minister took the occasion to assert (without evidence or specific commitments) that women’s rights will be respected in Afghanistan.

However, women business owners are a new and different category from those that the Taliban dealt with when they held power in the 1990s. While women businesses tend to both employ and serve mostly women – thus aligning to some extent with the Taliban’s policy of segregating women’s spaces – these women business owners have displayed admirable resilience in standing strong for their right to continue operating throughout the past year. These women are strong, hopeful, visionary, and perhaps most importantly, they have been part of the mainstream economy for the last 20 years, making them even more determined and prepared to resist any Taliban efforts to push them out of the economy.

Yet despite women’s resistance, and the continued operation of a number of traditional women-run businesses such as handicraft and food processing companies, it is not the same as the past.

Fewer businesses are operating, and half of the formal 2,471 women-owned businesses that were operating in modern sectors already closed, with the other half on the verge of closing.

The owner of a clothing design and production house reported, “I have kept my production house and the retail shop is open, but we only get a client every other day. We sell outside and we get the transfers in two instalments, and we have to ship the orders through Pakistan. Sometimes because of the shipment difficulty we fail to complete the order and so we lose the sale. I don’t know for how long more we will be able to survive. “

One major reason for the decline in participation are the restrictions on women’s movement imposed by Taliban rule. These have made it difficult for women’s businesses to survive while their owners are restrained from circulating freely to conduct business.

Other reasons for the decrease in women’s participation is the overall economic crisis and reduced purchasing power of people compared to the past. Though handicraft businesses are allowed to operate, handicrafts are luxury and expensive items, and many previous customers are struggling to pay for their primary need items. As a result, these businesses’ lists of clients have shrunk drastically over the past year.

Lack of cash in the economy, the paralyzed banking system, and other legal and infrastructural barriers are among the major challenges all businesses are facing but women’s micro, small, and medium enterprises are suffering the most. Restrictions on women’s movement have also harmed women’s businesses on the demand side by inhibiting the movement of potential clients. In the past, women could easily take taxi or board public transportation to access goods and services supplied by other women. But now women are less able to move freely by public transit, and are frequently harassed at Taliban check points if they are alone in a taxi. For these reasons, most of the businesses previously run by women in non-traditional sectors such as IT, media, exports, logistics, private day cares, private schools, travel agencies, and restaurants are closed.

Finally, some of the legal restrictions and tax collection that the Taliban have implemented pose additional barriers to all businesses, but are especially burdensome to women-dominated sectors. For example, the health facilities owned by women have reported that every week five or six Talib are coming to their clinics and hospitals to charge a daily “tax” based on the number of persons present in their clinic – including the patients’ companions – and that the Taliban calculate this tax based on a single day’s survey, multiplied by the days of week, despite the fact that half of the people present might be companions to the patients, and patient numbers fluctuate over the course of the week. They charge AFN 50 per patient out of a doctor’s normal fee of AFN 200. The Taliban have also imposed pricing restrictions on businesses including those of women. For example, the beauty salons cannot charge the prices previously set by the market; instead, they have to charge based on a pricing list the Taliban has set. These businesses are earning less than half of what they used to earn, while other costs remain constant or increase; for instance, they are paying the same amount of rent to their landlords.

As things have gone backward over the past year, Afghan women and girls are still determined to stand for themselves. What they need from the international community is to stay steadfast in support of women and girls, continue negotiating their rights with the Taliban, and to build women’s leverage for their righteous demands. Ultimately, the Taliban must be forced to accept to sit with women leaders and negotiate terms directly. But as long as Taliban leaders remain too unwilling or scared of Afghan women leaders to meet with them face to face, the international community should continue their pressure. One practical option for the international community is to support measures connecting Afghan women businesses to digital platforms so they can market and sell their products online. Meanwhile, Afghan women entrepreneurs will continue to fight to retain their hard-won economic freedoms.

Image: In this photograph taken on May 28, 2022, an Afghan female presenter with news network 1TV, Lima Spesaly (C) with her face covered by a veil, speaks during a live broadcast at the 1TV channel station in Kabul. – After initially defying the Taliban order to cover their faces on air, Afghan women television presenters are broadcasting news and other programs wearing masks. Spesaly said it was difficult to work like this for hours but lei vowed to fight for her rights di lei and of other Afghan women that are being increasingly crushed by the hardline Islamist rulers. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP via Getty Images)

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