The Women of Afghanistan: Five Years Later
Monday, November 13, 2006; 1:00 PM
Five years after the Taliban fled Kabul under the cover of night, signs of fragile but real progress abound. Simple pleasures once prohibited -- song and dance, the flutter of kites -- have resumed. And for the first time, women and girls once repressed under Taliban rule are able to take better control of their lives and their futures.
Between February 2005 and May 2006, photographer Paula Lerner traveled to Kabul three times to document the changes seen by several women who have found aid through the Business Council for Peace, one of the many NGOs working to rebuild Afghanistan.
Paula Lerner and Marla Gitterman, program director for Bpeace, were online Monday, Nov. 13, at 1 p.m. ET to answer questions about the women of Kabul and the work of NGOs like Bpeace throughout Afghanistan.
The transcript follows.
Paula Lerner: Welcome to this online chat about Afghan business women, and thank you for your interest. We look forward to a good discussion.
Atlanta, Ga.: I'd like to know if educational opportunities for girls and women are improving. What is the progress being made and how can one offer assistance to an educational initiative without concern that the money would get in the wrong hands?
Paula Lerner: There are a variety of organizations and NGOs that are working to further the education of girls. Some have accelerated programs that help girls who missed out on going to school during Taliban times. Finding a good NGO is just a question of doing a bit of homework. Two good ones that I know of are Aidafghanistan.net, and Afghans 4 Tomorrow, or http:/
Beulaville, N.C.: Last year I read that the village mosques throughout Afghanistan still broadcast daily warnings over PA systems telling men not to let their daughters go to school because it is a sin for girls to get an education.
Is this still going on?
Marla Gitterman: In Kabul girls and women are attending school and university. Outside of Kabul is a different story. Girls are facing challenges to access to education due to traditional norms and influence of the Taliban.
London, U.K.: There has been a great deal of debate and controversy of late in the U.K. about women wearing veils--whether they should; whether it deliberately sets them apart in a way that is a barrier for others...are you familiar with this issue as it's been taken up, here in the U.K., and what insights can you offer about this, from your own experience?
Paula Lerner: Its a very different situation for women living within Islamic countries than for Muslim women in the west and other non-Muslim places. Within Afghanistan, many women still wear a burqa even after the fall of the Taliban, either out of choice, out of habit, or in some cases out of fear of reprisals from relatives.
None of the Bpeace women wear burqas anymore, although they do wear simple head scarves while out in public.
Thunder Bay, Ontario: How does the lack of independence of Afghan women affect their ability to begin business enterprises? Are they really in control of the business and its revenues?
Paula Lerner: It is an issue of course, and all of the women in the Bpeace program have families that support what they are doing. It would be difficult for a woman who had male family members who were against them having their enterprises to go forward with it. Having said that, the women in the Bpeace programs are making their own decisions.
Washington, D.C.: How did you find and meet these women? Is it easier now that they are allowed to talk with you? Do you plan to keep in touch with them and see how their stories progress? Thanks.
Paula Lerner: Bpeace went to Afghanistan in 2004 to look for suitable candidates for their programs. They went through both the Afghan Women's Business Federation, as well as the Afghan Women's Business Council looking for recommendations. Bpeace currently has 20 associates in its Afghan programs, most of whom are located in Kabul.
I do indeed plan to keep in touch with them, and am committed to following their lives and stories.
Detroit, Mich.: Hi Paula, How much security did you have in your travels in Afghanistan. And also, your work is beautiful.
Paula Lerner: Thanks for the kind comment about my work. Security is always an issue, and we were always trying to walk a line between being too careful and not being careful enough. We were very fortunate in that we had excellent people on the ground, one Bpeace staff person in Kabul as well as an interpreter/guide who we relied on to help us make decisions about security.
Des Moines, Iowa: What are the most common businesses that Afghan women pursue?
Marla Gitterman: Most of the businesswomen in Afghanistan are running handicraft businesses. This is a skill most women have and they can do it from their homes, which is a benefit. However, there are an increasing number of women entering non traditional businesses, such as fitness gym, business consulting, day care, printing, and more.
Anonymous: It seems to me that we could swing public opinion away from the Taliban if we would send school supplies, money, and loans for food to the Afghan women rather than fighting. Might work that way in Iraq too. The "Have" nations giving to those less fortunate.
Marla Gitterman: There are a lot of very generous people and organizations sending donations and providing support to the people of Afghanistan. This is very helpful. Sometimes the Bpeace associates get discouraged and we encourage them to stay focused. By being there for them, providing them with business advice and training, it helps them to keep going.
Chestertown, Md.: Oh, pu-leeze! bring us more of this format. This is what journalism should be.
Paula Lerner: Multimedia is a powerful medium for telling stories. Speaking for myself, I hope to pursue multimedia as a significant focus in my work.
San Francisco, Calif.: Do all the businesses these women form operate locally only? Do they have computers? Web sites?
Paula Lerner: Some of the Bpeace women are marketing their work for export (Suraia, for example, has a customer in New York City for her baby hats), but most are involved in production or service for the domestic market. Bpeace supplied them with computers from a donor and helped facilitate training them how to use them. Most of them have email, but as far as I know they do not have web sites at this point.
Sebastopol, Calif.: Hello, I am working with a small women's organization that has raised money to fund 5 $1,000 microloans to a sister organization in Kabul. We urgently need to know what is the best strategy for getting products out of Kabul and here to the U.S., where we waiting customers who are eager to buy crafts, textiles, and almost anything that these women can produce, even at above-market prices, just to help the women in Afghanistan out. Does anyone have any suggestions? We can get much higher prices here in the U.S. for products from these micro-loans than the women can sell things for in Afghanistan, and we have organizations willing to sell things here and send all proceeds back to Kabul for more microloans. Thank you for any suggestions!
Marla Gitterman: This is a challenge indeed. Afghanistan is still lacking the infrastructure that many of us take for granted. Fed Ex is working in Kabul; this is one option. Sometimes the retailers will be willing to pay the price for shipping. Bpeace has connected some of its associates to retailers in the United States. For now, we are sending products back and forth with people traveling to and from Kabul.
While you were in Afghanistan, what was your favorite time of the day to be photographing and why? Was there less dust and blowing sand at specific times of the day? Thanks.
Paula Lerner: Dust is a pervasive problem in Kabul, in part due to the fact that many of the paved roads were destroyed during the wars, and traffic on their remnants kick up much dust. The dust was most settled in the morning or after some rain (and there is rain only during certain seasons). I liked to photograph in the mornings or late afternoons when possible, both because the light is good and there is much activity to document.
Washington, D.C.: This question probably does not lend itself to a simple answer. Are the women turning to the business opportunities pretty much untouched by the violence and devastation of the war? Or were they affected and see this, in part, as a way of putting their lives back on course? Wonderful work that you are doing. Thank you. I see that today the Memorial for Dr Martin Luther King is being dedicated in Washington--very fitting that you are on today.
Paula Lerner: The women's lives are affected by the violence around them, and trying to deal with that and go forward is part of their lives. The woman who has the gym saw her client base dwindle as a direct result of Taliban threats, and a group store that the women were planning was on again/off again for awhile due to security concerns. They have decided to go forward at this point, but they are watching the situation closely. One thing that was inspiring to me personally in working with these women and learning there stories, was how they had faced so much personal trauma, yet they were not defeated by it. They somehow found the internal courage to pick themselves up and start their businesses, something that takes courage under normal circumstances, let alone in a country recovering from the collective trauma of decades of war.
Georgetown, D.C.: Are women who work for the government well respected among fellow Afghan women?
Marla Gitterman: Yes, women working in government are supported by by fellow Afghan women; however, not unconditionally. Like everywhere else, women support politicians with whom they agree. A Bpeace associate , after visiting New York for a business training program, decided to run for Parliament and she won a seat in the Provincial Council in Kabul. She is very well respected woman in her community.
Va.: I am wondering if American feminists are helping you?
Marla Gitterman: The Business Council for Peace has 200 volunteer members from various backgrounds, interests, and nationalities. The desire to help businesswomen in the countries where we work is the common thread.
Seattle, Wash.: Not asked from a political point of view, but did any of the women express or did you get a sense of the role that the women would like to see the U.S. play or support on their behalf?
Paula Lerner: The primary sentiment that the women expressed to me was that they did not want to be forgotten. One of the biggest fears that many Afghans have is that they would be abandoned to fight the insurgency alone.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: Hi:
Thank you so much for letting the world know about these remarkable women. There has been much discussion and little understanding in Canada about sending troops to Afghanistan. Afghanistan's hold on democracy is fragile and this program shows the need for ongoing support.
Perhaps you could consider sharing your work with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation?
Paula Lerner: I am familiar with the discussions and debate going on currently in Canada, and you are right that Afghanistan's democracy is fragile and needs ongoing support. I hope Canada will continue its efforts and not abandon its important work in Afghanistan.
Ashburn, Va.: Hi Paula,
Amazing work you do. I am a RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) and spent my time in Uzbekistan teaching English to Uzbek children. In UZ female students go to school until 11th form but typically once they graduate they are forced to marry and stay home. Is this the same in Afghanistan? Do men still frown upon a woman's desire to be independent and make a life for herself?
Paula Lerner: Many thanks for the comment about my work.
Kabul is a different environment than the rest of the country, which is more traditional. Some men do indeed frown on women being independent, but this was not the case with the families of the Bpeace women. Sadly, there are still many forced marriages and limited opportunities for many women in Afghanistan. Bpeace is trying to encourage and offer a model for a different way.
Marla Gitterman: Some of the young Bpeace associates are engaged, but are putting off marriage for a few years. They say marriage will change their lives and they want to put that off for a little while so they can pursue their business and career. Even if their fiance is supportive of what they do, they are concerned that marriage and motherhood will change their lives where they will not be able to do what they want to do.
Kansas City, Mo.: What is the reaction or outcome you would hope comes from work?
Paula Lerner: Speaking for me personally, I hope that telling these women's stories will draw attention to their situation and help put a human face on the headlines. Speaking as a Bpeace volunteer, I hope that the Bpeace programs will give these women opportunities that will better their lives and help them rebuild their world. With a little help, these women can go far and for many families their lives will improve. We have seen this already in the two years since the programs started.
London, U.K.: I think I have some sense of the benefits of Bpeace for these women. But I am intrigued by the role of a western professional photographer coming into their midst. I think it's great, Paula, that you plan to stay connected with them--what do you hope to achieve through this connection; what support will you need to sustain it; and how do you foresee obtaining that?
Paula Lerner: Thanks for the good question. To start with, they have important stories to tell that the world beyond Kabul should hear. These kinds of stories are generally not well covered in the media, and I hope I can be part of bringing them to a wider audience. Secondly, I have developed a personal relationship with these women and that relationship does not end when my coverage of the story does. I hope to pursue other stories about Afghan women and when I have the opportunity to go back to their country I will always stop in to connect with the women I have profiled in this piece, to see how they're doing, and update their stories.
Washington, D.C.: How do Afghan women get funds to start their businesses? Do they receive money from outside sources to help them get started? Thank you.
Marla Gitterman: The Afghan businesswomen are very resourceful; they get their funds from a variety of sources. Some of the Bpeace associates started their businesses with loans from NGOs, associations, and banks. One associate sold her jewelry and used her family's savings to grow her business. One associate recently won a $10,000 grant from the European Union. However, access to funding is still a major obstacle to many of the Afghan women wanting to start or grow their business.
Anonymous: Do the Afghan women see the West as the only hope for their children's future or do they see the fragile Afghan government as the ultimate source for stability?
Paula Lerner: I don't think they see the West as their only hope, and they are self starters who are self reliant. Having said that, the west currently does play an important part in their country's internal stability, and they do not want to be abandoned to fight the insurgency alone.
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