WRN recently caught up with Rangina Hamidi, women’s rights activist and founder and president of Kandahar Treasure, the first female-run private enterprise in southern Afghanistan. Rangina has also served as the manager for the Women’s Income Generation Project with Afghans for Civil Society. She believes that sustainable social change in Afghanistan is only possible through promoting women’s economic independence. In the interview below, Rangina explains how her work in improving women’s financial autonomy is helping to increase their voice in the community.
You started Kandahar Treasure as a way to provide economic opportunities for women. Why is it particularly difficult for Afghan women to access jobs and other financial resources?
In places like Kandahar, women have very limited opportunities to be actively involved in economic enterprise. There are severe restrictions on their movement: who they work with and the type of work. As a woman it is easier for me to work within female spaces: I can talk freely with them and create opportunities specially designed for them. Since the communities I worked in were very conservative, men didn’t have the courage to interfere and often left us alone, which was great when you’re trying to set up a new organization. Kandahar Treasure is a home-based business model run by an all-women team, as a result there is a high degree of social acceptability among even the most conservative members of society.
Why did choose Kandahar specifically?
There are many reasons. My family is from Kandahar, so I know the language and dialect very well. It made sense for me to go back to my community where I can communicate effectively without any language barrier. Secondly, when I returned to Afghanistan from the United States in 2003, many of my colleagues were focusing their efforts in the capital Kabul. Fewer people wanted to work in the provincial areas, but I was determined to take the path less traveled. More importantly, I knew Kandahar was the defective capital of the Taliban regime. I wanted a challenge so I went to the heart of a regime that had become an enemy to the world in order to see how people were affected in that region.
How do women benefit from being involved in business?
Money is power and earning an income automatically increases a woman’s voice within her home. For example 12 years ago, a young, timid girl joined our organization. Her family was poor and her father begged me to help his unmarried, ailing daughter. I told her to come work with me so she could earn a living and find friends to socialize with. Today, that woman is the head of her household. Her brothers, both young and old, respect her, obey her commands, and listen to her advice because she is the main breadwinner. She can take out loans for family members because of her salary and the credibility she has built within the company. Her brothers don’t have the same degree of financial stability.
Moreover, women at Kandahar Treasure come from all walks of life: different economic class, family backgrounds, religions, faiths, and ages. Girls in their teens as well as women in their 60s are working together towards a common goal which has helped create strong bonds and a sense of sisterhood. The women learn from each other and support their sisters through good and bad times. For example, one woman’s son is now engaged to another’s daughter,. Before being involved in Kandahar Treasure, the families would have never known each other. In Kandahar, Shias are the minority group and Sunnis are the majority. Traditionally, you will rarely see women from different faiths working together. But spending time together in business has helped them break down many stereotypes and lessen prejudices among the women. When I started the organization, a Shiite woman would have been afraid to pray in the company of Shia women. But after group discussions, the women began to understand and accept each other in ways they never had before. Now, they share a great degree of respect and deep friendships.
What should be done to provide women in Afghanistan with more economic opportunities?
As an Afghan woman myself, I believe the future of Afghanistan depends on its women. That doesn’t mean we neglect the men. But unfortunately, many men carry a heavy legacy of violence and foul politics. I have little faith in them to “fix” this country. However, women have a natural stake in Afghanistan’s progress: to build a better future for their children. Currently, it is extremely difficult for women to be involved in economic, social, and political development. Afghanistan lacks effective policies at the state and local levels to promote women’s participation in the public sphere. However, without the active engagement of half the country’s population the country cannot move forward.
How can women entrepreneurs combat violence and corruption?
Violence can be combatted by increasing entrepreneurial activities and creating more jobs. I believe it was BPeace, a non-profit focused on employment and economic success, that said more jobs means less violence. When there are viable economic opportunities, people are busy earning money so they have little time to fight or engage in other socially harmful behaviors. Women entrepreneurs can create jobs for the youth, so they won’t get involved in violence either
As a dual citizen of Afghanistan and the United States, what do you see as some of the common challenges faced by women globally?
Afghanistan has been trying to recover from almost four decades of conflict and has seen a great degree of international involvement within its borders. As international actors have rightfully pointed out, Afghanistan is a highly patriarchal society. However, the world at large is not free from the forces of patriarchy. For example, investing in women’s empowerment is not a major priority for governments in both developed and developing countries. No matter how hard women try, if we don’t have access to equal opportunities, our starting line will always be different than men’s. Such inequality makes progress difficult.
In Afghanistan, both local actors and foreign donors have heavily supported male leaders regardless of their education level or background or track record. However, when it’s time to invest in women leaders, the state and international agencies immediately raise questions about their education level, qualifications, and experience. Why is there such a double standard? It’s the same story in other fields. Banks, donors, multilateral organizations are more than eager to partner with men and provide them with large investments. However, they do not trust even the most capable women and refuse to invest in them. Trying to live and work under such double standards is difficult. To level the playing field for women, Afghanistan and the global community need to make systematic changes.