The whirring of a sewing machine fills the small shop of Fatima, 30, a mother of five, sounding a bit like a distant train in motion. Lost in her work, she gently moves a piece of fabric under the needle, breathing creative life into the cloth. Some of her pieces have already been hung with pride on the walls, poised and waiting to be discovered by the world around her.
For Fatima, life used to be mostly confined to the four walls of her house. She had been locked away in a conservative culture that affords women few rights and believes them to be inferior to men. She had no choice but to bury her childhood ambitions one by one in the daily ups and downs of a life that has little regard for the hopes and dreams of a small girl. Little did she realise that one day she would find a way to show her talents and become financially independent.
World Vision Afghanistan with the funding from the Government of Australia, initiated a five-year project (2014-2019) ‘Australia Afghanistan Community Resilience Scheme’. One of the project’s objectives is to empower women by increasing their influence at household and community levels and increasing their income generating opportunities. As a result, WV established the first ever all-women’s market in 2017 in Qala-e-naw, Badghis.
Encouraged by the country’s first lady, the small 15 stall market was inaugurated by the Afghan President who then authorised government funding to construct a spacious three story building with capacity for 80 shops. Fatima is among 45 women who currently do business in the market. She earns around US$130 a month as a tailor. When she used to work from home she made US$ 55 or less.
Establishing a shop in the women’s market wasn’t easy for Fatima. Even before Fatima learned of the market she had dreamed of having her own women’s clothing shop, but from the beginning of the process it turned out to be more complicated than she had imagined.
Inside the Market
The buzz of laughter fills the air. Fatima moves about free from fear and hesitation. She can breathe, see and experience the world outside her burqa’s smothering boundaries. This freedom is rare in Badghis, where women like Fatima are restricted by culture and religion, where life beyond the veil is filtered through a thin ribbon of semi-transparent fabric mesh – their only window to the outside world.
Fatima comes to the market every morning, retires her burqa, feels the morning breeze on her face and happily chats with other women while they buy and sell arts, crafts and products. And at the end of the day she leaves feeling empowered by the money she has earned.
How it started
Fatima’s husband sells sandwiches in the bazar, where he earns barely enough to meet the family’s expenses. Even so, he wasn’t convinced that she should go out to work. Coming from a traditional background, he was not happy with the idea. As long as he could remember, he had seen women at home taking care of children, and busy with cooking and washing; he couldn’t digest the idea of women working outside of the home.
“Having a shop!” Fatima remembers her husband saying when she first brought up the idea. “Are you delirious!? What do you want to do there? No, stay at home and take care of your children. I don’t need your money.” And then he raised the volume of the TV.
According to Ms. Zarghona Shirzad, head of the Badghis Department of Women’s Affairs DoWA, “When the idea of the women’s market was raised,” says Shirzad, “we worked with World Vision to conduct several meetings with the governor and the religious affairs department to seek their support [for the market].”
To address the challenges of cultural barriers and to ensure women’s participation in the initiative, World Vision utilised different programme models such as Community Change and Celebrating Families, which have given voice to members of the community, and with the guidance of religious leaders, helped to expose the misconceptions and false beliefs often held in traditional villages regarding the role of women in social activities.
As a result, religious leaders allocated two Friday prayer times each month to discuss the women’s market and convince men that women working outside of the home is acceptable within the framework of Islam. The sermons not only changed many men’s perspectives on social and economic possibilities for women, but also acted as an advertisement whereby the DoWA started receiving applications for providing market space.
Shirzad adds that at the beginning of the campaign she received many threats through letters and calls from men who were against the idea; but she and her support network persisted. “Religious leaders played an important role in quelling the anger of opponents,” she says.
The preaching worked well enough that one day, after returning from Friday prayers, Fatima’s husband asked her if she still wanted to work in the market. “I just said Yes! Loudly!” exclaims Fatima.
A revolution for Fatima
One year has passed since Fatima opened her shop in the market. She’s smiling from ear to ear. “I have two to three customers a day. I charge 150 to 300 Afs for every item of clothing I tailor.” Though in the beginning she didn’t have many customers as women in the city had yet to discover the market, business has since improved.
“I am so glad. Before, my income wasn’t good at home and I always asked my husband to give me money if I wanted to buy something for myself. But now I go home in the evenings with money and on my way home I buy whatever I want for myself and the children.” They even hired a nanny to take care of the children while Fatima is working.
It is far more than a business
The market has not only given Fatima financial independence, but has also helped her emotionally. She feels more relaxed. “Every morning when I come here, I leave my family problems at home and chat and laugh with women in the market. I really don’t feel the passing of time. We talk and share experiences with each other. We can joke and forget life’s challenges for a while.”
Fatima also mentions that most market vendors in Badghis are men, and often women don’t feel confident enough to go to the market alone; they prefer when the man does the shopping. Coming to the women’s market, however, has allowed them the freedom to shop according to their own taste and style.
“When I was at home,” says Fatima, “I had to ask my husband to buy what my children and I needed. In the city each shop is in a different location, and I didn’t know the city very well. This market, though, has most of what women may need, like shoes, clothes, even ice cream and a private clinic.” She adds that they may even have an opportunity to establish a women’s gym and sports club, the first of its kind in the city – just imagine.