In a feature story by the Afghanistan Analysts Network, three resilient Afghan women open up about their experiences enduring economic hardships under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Despite different backgrounds, these women share a common thread – they all face the oppressive bans imposed by the Taliban prohibiting them from employment and numerous other opportunities.
These narratives only represent the stories of three remarkable women, providing insights into the struggles millions of Afghan women face across all generations. Afghan women are not allowed to work, they cannot leave their homes “unless necessary,” they cannot seek education, and so much more, but despite the numerous bans, they continue to find ways to earn an income and survive in the face of adversity.
Nilofar, for example, is a 26-year-old Afghan woman who had a government job before the Taliban takeover in 2021. She had to support her family: two children, her disabled husband, his father and four sisters. Her husband was in the military and lost both his legs and damaged his spine.
“I used some of my savings to buy a karachi [handcart]. I sold soda, cigarettes and cold water, but my husband’s injuries required medical attention, so I had to sell the handcart to pay for his treatment.”
Then she started selling ice cream for a company. She gets a percentage of what is sold – 2 afghanis (about two and a half U.S. cents) for every small ice cream cone, which sells for 10 afghanis (12 U.S. cents) and 5 afghanis (about 5 and a half U.S. cents) for the larger ones, which go for 20 afghanis (24 U.S. cents).
At the end of the day Nilofar makes 100 to 200 afghanis, or 1.17 to 2.33 U.S. dollars. That covers basic needs including rent and utilities.
“Life is hard for a woman in this country and for women street peddlers, it’s doubly hard. We have to endure street harassment which is an unfortunate pastime of some Afghan men. They say and do disgusting things without a second thought.”
In the early days of the Taliban takeover, they wouldn’t allow women to work without a mahram, or male guardian. She now moves around, observing the hijab, searching for crowded places where customers will buy a luxury like ice cream in a country that is facing an economic crisis.
“So this is how I spend my days, peddling ice cream from Kart-e Parwan to Shahr-e Naw and Wazir Akbar Khan and sometimes all the way to the airport…I take my meager earnings and rush home. I pick up some bread along the way. Sometimes when I have the money, I get some vegetables or yogurt, but I’m worried about the winter when people don’t buy ice cream.”
Leilama is another women, doing everything she can to survive. The 35-year-old Leialma from Kabul, supports her two daughters and infant son by selling socks and masks in the west part of the city. She used to work for a private company as a cook, alongside her husband. Her husband traveled to Iran, searching for work but because of the high cost of living, he is unable to send much money back, leaving Leilama to support the family. With no jobs for women, Leilama decided to sell socks and masks. She makes about 2 afghanis (2 and a half U.S. cents) in profit for each mask and 5 afghanis (5 and a half U.S. cents) for a pair of socks. Most days she returns home without enough money to buy bread for her children.
“My infant son is now malnourished. I heard some organizations give people food and treat malnourished children, but we haven’t received anything and I don’t know where to go to get help. We don’t have a man at home to follow up on these things and find the offices and I don’t have time to do it myself. I can’t miss time from work because every hour I’m not on the street is money lost.”
The Taliban bother her about the rules against street peddlers staying in one place, and even sometimes confiscate her karachi (handcart). When she gets it back from the police station, her stock is missing and she has to find money to buy more things to sell.
“They made me sign a paper several times promising I would not sell on the main roads, but I don’t have a choice; there is no footfall and no customers on the side streets.”
The 48-year-old Maryam is her family’s breadwinner since her husband was killed by a suicide attacker. She used to work at an international organization but when the Republic fell, she lost her job and couldn’t find a new one since the Taliban barred women from working in offices. She has six daughters and a son. Her older daughters once helped her work, but she decided to leave them at home to protect them from Taliban attention and street harassment.
“Most people are friendly and respectful, but there are always those few bad apples who say off-color or hurtful things. What can I say? It’s the lot of women on the streets of Kabul. We hear a thousand and one unpleasant things every day. We have to tolerate it; there is no other way. Sadly, this is our culture. When you’re down, people look down on you.”
The Taliban believes that women should not be working outside the home, especially not as street peddlers where men can see them. They tell Maryam that she cannot operate a karachi among non-mahrams. She is adamant on getting around such obstacles in order to feed her family.
“Life is getting more difficult every day. I wish the Taliban would let women work for the government or foreign organizations. Many women don’t have a husband to provide for them and have to find ways to provide for their children.”
Maryam says that if she could get a job, she could make as much as 5,000 afghanis a month (58 USD). She is prepared to do any kind of work.
“I wish I had enough money to start a small business at home and put my girls to work. But I have borrowed money from everyone I know and no one will lend me any more money because they don’t think I can pay them back.”
Earning about 150 to 200 afghanis (1.75 to 2.3 USD) is enough to meet expenses if Maryam works every day. But sometimes business is bad, or she is prevented from selling by the Taliban. If she gets sick, that’s one day’s earnings gone. Some days, she cannot afford to buy much stock if the prices of vegetables have increased overnight. She is behind on the rent, 3,000 afghanis (35 USD), which keeps her up at night worrying that her family will end up without a roof over their heads. At the end of the day, she takes the wilted greens and rotten vegetables home for her family to eat. It eats into the profits, but keeps food on the table and losses to a minimum.
“During the Republic, my husband and I had so much hope for our daughters. They were all in school and we helped them with their homework. We thought they would grow up educated, get office jobs and support us in our old age. Now that future seems like an impossible dream. I don’t know what to do. Where should I raise my voice to ask for help? There is no one to hear us.”
Afghanistan Analysts Network July 2023.