Merafzon, left, greets her lunch customers.

KABUL, Afghanistan (WOMENSENEWS)–Merafzon has a determined set to her chin and a resolute look in her eye as she surveys the pushing and jostling crowd grouped around the food counter. These are her customers, but she will take no nonsense from them.

While her customers clamor for attention she firmly tells them to wait their turn as she ladles out their food. Their attempts to bargain down the price of the dishes are also met with firm rebuttals. "The price is fixed and the menu set," she says, pointing her customers to the payment counter managed by a female cashier-in-training.

Merafzon–like many Afghans she has only one name–is the president of Mushtari Cooking and Catering Company, an all-woman association that has just opened a lunchtime canteen for employees of the government’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

Merafzon, 42, is part of a small group of women entering Afghanistan’s male-dominated domains with the help of a program sponsored by Italian Cooperation, the Italian government’s aid and development agency that has allocated $260,000 for the project. Another $30,000 has been provided by the Lombardy region.

Bypassing the traditional skills usually held by women–such as sewing and cleaning for poorer women and teaching or receptionist jobs for the middle class–the Italian program introduced a group of 60 women to four skilled trades: catering, gem-cutting, repairing mobile phones and making solar lanterns. Once they are fully trained, they will work in cooperative business associations officially registered with the Afghan government and will share the profits equally.

Atmosphere of Camaraderie

The women’s center is a three-story building in a lower middle-class neighborhood of Kabul. In the basement is the gem-cutting room with its massive machines. On the first floor two rooms house the mobile phone unit and the solar lantern unit. There is a kindergarten on the second floor where the women leave their children while they learn new skills and receive literacy training. The atmosphere in each room is friendly and one of camaraderie; the women chat together as they pore over their work.

At the center, an Italian volunteer came to train women for catering, a field that is predominantly male in Afghanistan. To teach lantern-making and gem-cutting, experts came from India to pass on their skills. Some of the women also traveled to Jaipur, India’s famed gem center, to train there.

When the project was launched a year and a half ago, Italian Cooperation opened it to women from Kabul’s eighth district, one of the city’s poorest areas. "The most vulnerable women were identified through a survey," says Monica Matarazzo, the social project officer with Italian Cooperation.

The choice of unusual professions was deliberate. "It was more challenging and original," says Matarazzo. It was felt, she says, that there were already plenty of projects in Kabul teaching sewing and more traditional skills to women.

Although Afghanistan’s constitution now guarantees equal rights for women, customs restricting their movement still remain. Some women, especially those from more affluent or liberal families, have the freedom to leave their homes, but for others it is still forbidden, especially if their work will put them into contact with male colleagues. Women traveling alone still face harassment in the streets.

Layer of Protective Approval

Recognizing the difficulty the women had in leaving their neighborhoods, Italian Cooperation located the training center near their homes and worked with the local shura–the group of elders that make decisions in the community–to gain their support and give the women a layer of protective approval. The women are able to walk in to the center and their families and neighbors can visit and see what happens there. Once the first step was taken, it has now become possible for the women to travel further.

The Sultan Razia Gem-Cutting and Polishing Company is about to open a window on Chicken Street, Kabul’s top tourist destination. Merchants along the narrow street lined with shops sell carpet and jewelry. Afghanistan is rich in lapis and quartz; during the war, the mines were plundered to finance the fighting forces.

Asifa, a 40-year-old war widow, has brought up five daughters and two sons since her husband’s death a decade ago. She is a graduate of the project’s gem-cutting program. Asifa remembers a very different earlier life, when she lived comfortably and securely with her husband, a senior employee of the government-owned radio and television network.

"But the Taliban came to him asking him not to make anti-Taliban programs," Asifa says. "When he didn’t listen to them one day they came to the house. They knocked on the door and shot him dead. I survived by sewing clothes. No one helped. Then the center opened. In the beginning no one wanted to come to the center. They were not sure its work was in accordance with Islam. But slowly we saw what it was and now my neighbors have no problems with it."

Doing the Work Themselves

Another student in the gem-cutting program, Saleha, says she did not find it easy to start working outside the home. The big polishing and cutting machines scared her initially. Now, she says, the women can easily repair any of the minor problems in the machines themselves.

An owner of a local mobile phone repair shop offered his expertise to the project, and the nation’s largest mobile service provider, Roshan, a Kabul-based company that says 21 percent of its employees are female, plans to donate equipment and says it will send a stream of customers to the women once they are officially in business.

One of those will be 19-year-old Fahima. Her father was shot in the eye six years ago by the "gilam jam," the "carpet-baggers" of the North who looted and pillaged Afghanistan in the civil war before the Taliban seized control in 1996. Refugees for 12 years, the family returned to their home city to find their shops burned down and their home in need of extensive repairs. Now Fahima has become an expert mobile phone repairer.

Shakila is only 35, but looks older. A hard life, a heart ailment and unending struggles have taken their toll, as they have for many Afghan women, who have an average life expectancy of 42 years and endure maternal mortality rates that are among the highest in the world. But Shakila says she is doing much better these days.

"I have six children and a husband at home," she says. "Before, the money my husband used to earn was not enough for the living expenses and my medicine as well. Now, after I started training here, I can afford my medicines."

Shakila is a part of a group of women who make solar lanterns. They disassemble kerosene lanterns and retrofit them with small solar panels and microchips. Although relatively costly at $75 apiece, the lanterns are useful in Afghanistan, which has plenty of sunshine but often runs short on electricity.

Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian journalist who is currently based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for 16 years and she has covered the Kashmir conflict and post-conflict development in Punjab extensively.