Women in Afghanistan have set up secret businesses to escape the brutal restrictions of the Taliban, who swept to power two years ago today.
The Taliban‘s seizing of power resulted in the end of two decades of increased economic opportunities and freedom for women in the country.
Marzia Babakarkhail, a former family court judge in Afghanistan, told Sky News that women in the country are “in a battle”.
“We have no happiness outside or inside Afghanistan. We have no hope, we have no future for the young generation. There is just darkness and hopelessness,” she said.
The Taliban banned women from doing most jobs, barred girls and young women from secondary school and university education and imposed harsh curtailments on their freedoms.
All the while, the country faces a severe economic crisis, with 85% of the population living under the poverty line.
But some women whose businesses were destroyed have made the transition to smaller, underground enterprises to make ends meet.
Laila Haidari’s restaurant was a lively hive of activity in Kabul that was known for its music and poetry evenings and was popular with intellectuals, writers, journalists and foreigners.
She reinvested the profits from the restaurant into a drugs rehabilitation centre she set up nearby.
But just a few days after the Taliban seized power, the group destroyed Ms Haidari’s restaurant, looted the furniture, and threw out the patients attending the rehab centre.
Just five months later, she opened a secret craft centre where women can earn a small income stitching dresses and fashioning jewellery from melted-down bullet casings.
“I opened this centre to provide jobs for women who desperately need them,” Ms Haidari said.
“This is not a permanent solution, but at least it will help them put food on their table.”
The centre now helps fund an underground school providing 200 girls with lessons in maths and English. Some attend in person, others online.
“I don’t want Afghan girls to forget their knowledge and then, in a few years, we will have another illiterate generation,” Ms Haidairi said, referring to the women and girls deprived of education during the Taliban’s last period of rule from 1996 to 2001.
The centre, which also makes men’s clothing, rugs and home decor items, employs about 50 women who earn around £47 a month.
“If the Taliban try to stop me I’ll tell them they must pay me and pay these women,” she said.
“Otherwise, how will we eat?”
Dressmaker Wajiha Sekhawat, 25, created outfits for clients based on celebrities’ social media posts before August 2021.
But now her monthly income has fallen from about £470 to less than £150 partly due to demand for party dresses and business outfits plummeting after most women lost their jobs.
She would travel to Pakistan and Iran to buy fabrics for clients but now cannot travel without a male chaperone – a mahram – and often cannot afford the cost of doing so.
When she sent a male family member to Pakistan in her place he returned with the wrong fabrics.
“I used to make regular business trips abroad by myself, but now I can’t even go out for a coffee,” Ms Sekhawat said.
“It’s suffocating. Some days I just go to my room and scream.”
The restrictions are particularly difficult for the country’s estimated two million widows, as well as single women and divorcees who may not have anyone to act as their male chaperone.
After her husband’s death in 2015, Sadaf relied on the income from her busy Kabul beauty salon to support her five children.
She offered hairstyling, make-up, manicures and wedding makeovers to a wide range of women from government workers to TV presenters.
Sadaf, 43, who asked to use a pseudonym, began running her business from home after the Taliban told her to shut her salon.
But with clients having lost their own jobs, most stopped coming or cut back and her monthly income dropped dramatically.
Last month the authorities ordered all salons to shut down, saying they offered treatments that went against their Islamic values.
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More than 60,000 women are likely to lose their jobs as a result, according to industry estimates.
While the future looks grim for women’s freedoms in the country, aid agencies said they are emphasising the economic benefits of allowing women to work when negotiating with Taliban authorities.
“We tell them if we create jobs it means that these women can feed their family, it means they are paying taxes,” Melissa Cornet, an adviser to CARE Afghanistan, said.
“We try to have a pragmatic approach and usually it’s quite successful. The Taliban are very keen on the economic argument.”