I met an amazing group of Afghan women last week. We met at Thunderbird, the graduate school of international business located in Phoenix. The women, all entrepreneurs in Afghanistan, had come for a two-week course to improve their business skills. In between classes in marketing and finance, they had time to see a few sights, including the Grand Canyon and, almost as exciting, a dollar store.
In Afghanistan they run a surprising array of businesses. One is an engineer and heads an Association of Women Engineers. Her business is the construction of small villages. Another manufactures soccer balls, while a third has a company that produces washing powder in Kabul. Her competition, not surprising, consists of imports from China.
This is the second group of Afghan businesswomen to come to Thunderbird. Last year’s group spoke English. This group mostly did not and was accompanied by translators, some from Washington and one from their home country. The women come here under the auspices of several groups, including USAID and the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council. The Afghan woman who accompanied Mrs. Bush to the State of the Union message was part of the first Thunderbird group.
The two weeks of classes ended with a dinner and a formal graduation ceremony attended by the ambassador to the U.S. from Afghanistan, Said Tayeb Jawad, and his elegant wife. Ambassador Jawad told me that in the ’50s and the ’60s there were many professional women in Afghanistan. Both his mother and his wife’s mother worked. One was a teacher, the other a nurse. “Almost 50 percent of the teachers throughout the country were women. There were women in government.” He also said that Afghanistan at the time was considered a progressive Islamic country with such a relaxed way of life that couples from Iran and Pakistan would travel to Kabul for their honeymoons.
“Women were always respected in Afghanistan,” he told me. “My family is from Kandahar, and when we would travel to Kabul, my mother would carry the money because no robber would ever dare to accost a woman. That’s why the Taliban beating women on the street was so strange to us. That is not part of our tradition at all.”
It is remarkable how much of an effect this two-week seminar for just 15 Afghan women can have. Each one of them pledges to return to Afghanistan and mentor as many women as she can, encouraging them to start businesses and help build their country. Last year’s graduates have done quite well at that. One now employs 200 women who make gabions, the wire boxes used in the building of dams and foundations. Another has a micro-financing business and has loaned more than $200,000 to 3,000 clients. “There are no women warlords in Afghanistan,” the ambassador said. “It is often the women who are trying to build a peaceful future for our country When we were writing the Constitution, it was the women who were able to work so well together.”
One young woman in the group, Lima, seemed especially strong-minded, determined, and outspoken. Most of the women wore headscarves and dressed in long skirts or tunics and soft trousers. Lima wore a trim pantsuit and did not cover her thick, shoulder-length black hair. “Some of the ladies do not like that I do not wear a scarf,” she told me. “But if my family does not care…if I do not care…why should they?”
She is a designer and has 500 women embroidering her designs in their homes. She brought with her a selection of her fashions, which she promoted every chance she could. When her clothes sold out during one of the dinners, she made sure she returned to her room to re-stock and sell some more.
She was also fairly direct with the ambassador. “There is not enough security,” she declared. “What is the government doing? Why is the government not doing more? We are not safe,” she told him. “The government is not doing enough,” she repeated.
Lima lives in Kandahar, where the Taliban, once again, appears to be gaining support. She moves around the city by herself, giving material to the women she employs and picking up their finished work. “Aren’t you afraid?” I asked. She is just 23. “I am brave,” she said. Then she shrugged her delicate shoulders, as if to say that she would give herself no other choice. “I must be brave,” she said.
— Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness — and Liberalism — to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.