Afghan women carve a career in a man’s world

  • 08 Mar. 2011 -
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  • Last updated: 18 Mar. 2011 15:51

In a gloomy tent in a grimy Kabul backstreet, Nos, a well-dressed mother of four is feeding planks of wood into an industrial saw. She pauses often to push her hijab out of the way and wipe the dust from her eyes.

One female student prepares a varnished child's rocking horse for sale to a local trader.

Around her, other Afghan women are sawing, sanding and polishing furniture, toys and ornaments which may just earn them about US$4 a month to help support their families.

This is no sweat shop, but a commercial enterprise set up to teach women in the capital a “man’s job”. Fatema Akbari, is the driving force behind it; an Afghan widow who was forced to find work on Iranian construction sites when her husband died 12 years ago. She returned to her home country to pass on the carpentry skills she learned to other fellow female victims of three decades of Afghan war. The dozen or so women both inside and outside the snow-covered canvas tent, which serves as the only shelter against a freezing Kabul winter, say they feel privileged to be learning a trade.

We really enjoy this work,” Salima says enthusiastically as she and a colleague stand up to their ankles in thick mud, tracing intricate designs in pencil on a length of wood headed for Nos’ saw mill. “It is interesting and it gives us a salary. I can send my five children to school and one day they will be able to support me,” she says.

Salima’s husband lost a leg and a hand in battle and can no longer work so the weight of financial responsibility is solely on her. She shrugs as she explains her situation, as if it isn’t of any great import. She knows those working alongside her have equally difficult challenges to overcome. In Afghanistan life is hard.

Another Fatema, sanding a chair across from Salima and dressed in black from head to foot, is trying to earn money to pay off the loan sharks she was forced to borrow from when her husband was killed by the Taliban. “We didn’t have anything in the house so he had to go out,” she explains. “He was walking down the street when the Taliban fired rockets at civilians. He was blown up. His body lay in the street for three days afterwards because it wasn’t safe to go to get it.

Fatema was left on her own with four children to feed and no help from anyone else.

In Afghanistan it is common for widows to be cast out to fend for themselves when their husbands die. Many end up begging on the streets.

Fatema packed up the family home in Bamiyan and moved to Kabul. “I don’t know how we survived,” she says. When asked what her children think about her becoming a carpenter, she says they don’t think about it at all: “They only worry about getting enough food to eat each day.”

The carpentry school is a lifeline to women like Fatema. They walk for up to two hours a day each way to get there, but without any guarantees of money at the end of the month. “If we sell a table or a toy they give us money, but if we don’t sell anything we don’t earn anything,” says another woman.

It is up to the workers, backed by the carpentry school’s founder to make the business contacts to sell their produce. Their skills are becoming renowned and traders now beat a path to the cramped compound to buy their wares.

45 year-old Fatema Akbari travels at home and abroad to highlight her venture and seek both clients and capital. In Kabul she attends female business luncheons to make contacts. “We suffer from a lack of materials,” she explains while surrounded by dozens of other Afghan women steadily making their mark on the capital’s business scene. “We can only put so much money back into the business because the workers have to have enough to live on, so we can’t often buy the things we need to make the goods,” she says. “I have even thought about sending them out into the streets of Kabul to find materials we could recycle.”

There may be a shortage of materials but there is no shortage of prospective students. “We don’t turn anyone away,” says Fatema Akbari. “We are here to help the poorest people.”

Because the women certainly can’t afford childcare while they are at work, there is a one-room school house within the compound too. “We have so many children now, they have to come in two sittings, “ laughs Fatema. ”Some come in the morning and some in the afternoon.

Some of the children move across the yard to learn carpentry too. For 13 year-old Hortena it is the perfect holiday job: “I come here because I want to learn something, not for the money,” she says, as she diligently sands table legs. However, several of her school friends insist carpentry is not for them. “I don’t want to learn it,” says one ten year-old boy. “I am going to be a doctor.” “Me too,” says his friend. One girl of the same age shyly admits her ambition is to be an airline pilot.

This is just the start of my work,” says Fatema Akbari. “I want to work in 34 provinces of Afghanistan. We have five locations so far, even one in Helmand Province. But I want to work all over the country, helping people help themselves.