Afghan Women's Bazaar Sparks Debate
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
The changing role of women in post-Taliban Afghanistan can perhaps be best described as two steps forward, one step back. Each new freedom women earn leads to a public backlash over perceived violations of Islamic law and Afghan tradition. But in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, a handful of women are trying something they figure this business-minded society can accept, a women's bazaar. NPR's Sorayah Sarhaddi Nelson has the story.
SORAYAH SARHADDI NELSON: The taxi driver who pops his head into Labiba Barmaki's(ph) tiny shop looked surprised to see a female storekeeper, a woman with only a scarf covering her hair rather than the fully eclipsing burqa. But he quickly regains his composure and the haggling beings.
He wants a discount. She tells him forget it, that this is a woman-run store and she won't be taken advantage of. The price for the plastic hawk he wants to buy is firm, 280 Afghanis; that's $5.60. The driver leaves without a word and without the hawk. Barmaki is disappointed. But the fact men are even coming into the closet-sized cargo container from which she sells handicraft and novelty items is a high for this budding businesswoman. She and four other women are doing something few, if any, have done in Afghanistan in more than a decade, running their own stores. And they're doing it from a prime piece of real estate, the wide median strip across from the city's famous shrine, only a stone's throw from hundreds of men-run stores.
Ms. LABIBA BARMAKI (Storekeeper): (Through translator) There haven't been any problems. Anyone can come here and shop. If this was only for women, then I don't think it's going to improve the problem that exists between men and women.
NELSON: It's a bold enterprise, even in this province, which Governor Atta Mohammad Nour(ph) says is an enlightened one.
Mr. ATTA MOHAMMAD NOUR (Governor): (Through translator) It's been part of our development project here. And we've got plans to make women self-sufficient.
NELSON: Not everyone in this northern city appears happy about women shopkeepers, however. The police station near the four cargo containers has kept away vandals and hecklers, but across the street, curtain salesman Atta Mohammad(ph) has plenty to say. He argues that businesswomen's presence is an insult to Islam and Afghan culture. He adds that if it were his wife, he'd shoot her.
Mr. ATTA MOHAMMAD (Salesman): (Through translator) A lot of money has come to Afghanistan for the betterment of women's rights here, but this is just to deceive people. This cannot bring any good to the women here. They should have built a market for women, a bazaar for women in the corner of town; that should have been only for women.
NELSON: He and others complain officials should instead be finding jobs for unemployed men. They also don't like that the women are paying only a third or less of what male shopkeepers pay in rent. But Fareeb al-Majid(ph), the Provincial Women's Ministry director who founded the bazaar, dismisses such complaints. She says even if the women's bazaar is expanded to 20 stores like she hopes, it won't be cutting into existing businesses.
Ms. FAREEB AL-MAJID (Director, Provincial Women's Ministry): (Through translator) It could be bias. It could be rivalry. What we should keep in mind is, in Afghanistan men always want to have control over women. It might be a little bit difficult for them to accept that women have started to become independent.
NELSON: She says rent subsidies are needed to ensure the women turn a profit. They can't be allowed to go home to their husbands empty-handed. Majid says if they did, the husbands would not let the women continue working. For now, the women say their husbands are happy. They are even allowing their daughters to work. Twelve-year-old Kadishma(ph) helps her mother sell cosmetics and women's underwear.
KADISHMA: (Through translator) I think it's good because business is a good occupation for women.
NELSON: Her mother, Kamla Semini(ph), says she hopes to expand the store. Majid of the Women's Ministry says they can, maybe in a few months. But in order to soothe male anger and convince more women to try their hand at running a store, Majid says the new bazaar will be built in a more secluded spot, one that for a while will be for women customers only. Sorayah Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Mazar-e-Sharif.