As Taliban advance, Afghan businesswomen fear return of ‘dark era’

As the Taliban rapidly advance across Afghanistan, designer Marzia Hafizi is worried about the survival of her fashion business and of the gains women have made in the last 20 years.

Hafizi, 29, opened her clothing store Lora in the capital Kabul in 2018, fulfilling a long-held dream of becoming a businesswoman in her conservative, male-dominated country – an unthinkable feat during Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001.

“If the Taliban come back to power and impose their old, dark mentality, I might be forced to leave,” Hafizi said, over whirring machines as men and women tailors cut, sewed and ironed her latest designs.

“All of my friends and family are advising me to quit and leave the country (but) my resolve to promote women’s businesses, create jobs for them and see a self-reliant Afghanistan is keeping me here and fighting for survival.”

The Taliban enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law, that included public lashings, flogging and stonings, until they were ousted by U.S. bombing following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

As U.S.-led foreign forces complete their withdrawal, the Taliban have made swift territorial gains, raising fears among women of a roll back of their rights, from education and work to freedom of movement.

During Taliban rule, women were required to cover their bodies and faces in a burqa, and were barred from school, work or leaving the house without a male relative.

The militants say they have changed, and that Islam gives women rights in business, work, inheritance and education, but have given little detail, only saying this would be decided according to Islamic sharia, fuelling scepticism in many women.

The government has vowed not to compromise on women’s rights in exchange for peace but talks between the Taliban and Afghan politicians have failed to progress.

U.S. National Intelligence Council analysts have predicted losses for women, even without a Taliban win, attributing women’s recent gains to external pressure, rather than domestic support.

Fawzia Koofi is one of the few female negotiators in peace talks between Afghan politicians – who have vowed not to compromise on women’s rights – and the Taliban.

“The resistance that the women of Afghanistan have, we will not go back to scratch,” said Koofi, who has survived two assassination attempts.

“We will do everything to keep women’s presence in society and in political and social life … we will not return to the dark past.”

Women have made significant strides during the last two decades, with growing numbers finishing their education and working in previously male bastions, including politics, the media, the judiciary, hospitality and IT.

In cities like Kabul, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, young women can be seen walking freely, using their smartphones, wearing western clothes and mingling with men in cafes and malls.

President Ashraf Ghani has appointed women as deputy governors in all provinces and given them ministerial roles.

Women hold 27 per cent of seats in the lower house of parliament, thanks to a quota – exceeding the global average of 25 per cent, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Women own almost 60,000 businesses, predominantly in Kabul, including restaurants, salons and handicrafts shops, according to the Afghanistan Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Those who spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation said that they had come too far to be robbed of their achievements.

“Whatever the circumstances, I will not give up on my work,” said Nilofar Ayubi, 28, who runs an interior design firm, Maria Clothing, that is popular with Kabul’s elite.

“If the Taliban come to (power), they will either have to kill me or let me continue my work.”

In rural areas, where conservative families and radical Islamists hold sway, most women still wear burqas and only leave home for hospital and family visits, and young girls continue to be sold as brides to older men.

“There is so much more to be done to extend the very basic rights of health and education to women in rural areas, not just the Taliban-held areas, but all remote towns and villages,” said Nezam Uddin, head of the Peace and Human Rights Organisation.

“People are still far behind in terms of development and services, even in comparison to Kabul, let alone the standards of the regional countries.”

Massoma Jafari, 23, who sells jewellery and make up in Kabul, said she knew the price women would have to pay if the militants seized national power.

“I come from Ghor where many women have been stoned to death by the Taliban in the past. But look at me, I symbolise resistance,” said Jafari, referring to a western province where the Taliban last month forced Afghan troops to retreat.

“We hope and pray to Allah that the dark era of the Taliban never returns,” said Jafari as she adjusted a veil covering her head.