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Afghan Women Get Business Primer in US


Under the Taleban, the "Afghan Business Woman" didn't exist. Women were prohibited from operating businesses, though that didn't stop many from working underground. Afghanistan's new government has taken a different attitude, and it is sending female entrepreneurs to the United States to hone their business skills.

"All right, be Afghan, buy Afghan! "Be Afghan. Buy Afghan" (cheers!)

The 12 enthusiastic businesswomen would have risked beatings or worse under the Taleban for operating clothing and textile shops. Today they've completed a nine-day, intensive course at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology on how to market their apparel. FIT's Joan Volpe calls these 12 "fast runners" in a country where more than 80-percent of women are illiterate.

"These women had been hand-selected by the government because they already were entrepreneurs. They had businesses very courageously," Ms. Volpe says. "Some of them were doing business through the Taleban reign. They can't get textiles. A lot of the fabric is left over from when the Russians were in Afghanistan. They are working on foot pedal, old time sewing machines. They are looking to use handwork and apparel manufacturing as a way to jump start the economy."

Mahbooba, a middle-aged woman with dark hair flecked with gray peeking beneath her black scarf, has run a handicraft cooperative for 15 years, employing 30 people out of her house. She believes the training she received here will allow her to help other women.

"Business women, skilled women want to build their businesses and to find a market, a very good market nationally and internationally, to do business and create jobs for other women in Afghanistan. Women want to sell their products directly, by their own self," Ms. Mahbooba says.

The youngest of this group is 19-year-old Palwasha. The trip to New York is the first time she has traveled anywhere outside her county other than Pakistan, where her family lived during the years of the Taleban's rule. Like the other women, Palwasha wears a veil but her's is brightly colored in turquoise and purple and she wears a turquoise layered skirt that falls to her knee. The design looks Middle Eastern but also very modern. She laughs when asked whether her clothes are Afghan.

"No, I bought them from here. I was looking at other people and they were wearing these kind of skirts. And I fell in love with this skirt and I bought it," Ms. Palwasha says.

But, she says, she will not have many chances to wear her new outfit when she returns home.

"I cannot wear these kind of clothes when I go to the office during the week. I have to wear very faded color like black, brown, these kinds of things," Ms. Palwasha says. "But usually people do not wear them. They wear them at parties."

The clothing company Palwasha works for in Kabul is run by an Iranian woman who creates high-end clothing of western design with eastern embroidery aimed at foreigners and tourists.

"They make them for those, because Afghans, the price we get for our clothes, an Afghan cannot afford to buy that because we have to charge for everything," Ms. Palwasha says.

The FIT course, Ms. Volpe says, explored ways of altering both the color and construction of traditional, homespun Afghan textiles to attract foreign buyers.

"Our program was designed to teach them to make a much better quality product and broaden their peripheral vision in terms of the color palette," Ms. Volpe says. "To understand the fact that even in a seemingly monolithic society where everyone seems to be homogenous there are actually lots of different skin tones and colors that will look good on one person and not on another."

Shopping trips were part of the learning process of how to appeal to a broader market. Instructor Michelle Bryant remembers that the women loved the discount store Target, but seemed not to like the high-end fashion boutiques.

"They walked in and they became morose. Afterwards I said to them, 'What's the problem?' They said, 'Oh, this is so expensive.' And I said stop thinking like a customer," Ms. Bryant says. "Think like a merchant, this is good news for you, you'll get to sell your things as a much greater mark up and they were like, 'Oh!'"

Training completed, veteran entrepreneur Mahbooba says she's ready to apply what she's learned.

"Now we know the big picture about the products. Now we know how to produce for international market, how to produce for our local market," Ms. Mahbooba says.

And with hard work and good fortune, in the future perhaps the world will be seeing more labels that say, "Made in Afghanistan."

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