News / Asia

Entrepreneurial Afghan Women Changing Perceptions

Graduates of the 2013 class of Project Artemis are seen with their diplomas. (Courtesy Thunderbird School of Global Management)
Graduates of the 2013 class of Project Artemis are seen with their diplomas. (Courtesy Thunderbird School of Global Management)
When the Taliban came to power in 1996, Zainularab Miri was a teacher in Kabul. The Taliban shut down schools for girls, and Miri fled to her home province of Ghazni where the Taliban had less influence.

There, she continued to teach secretly and opened a small, clandestine beekeeping and honey-making business, all the while fearing that if the Taliban found out about either, it could cost her life. She called the Taliban era “a black period for Afghan women.”

When the Taliban were overthrown, Miri was able to take her business out of hiding, but she really didn’t know how to run it, much less expand it.

In 2006, she was selected to take part in Project Artemis, hosted by the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona. The program aims to bring Afghan women entrepreneurs to the U.S. for an intensive, two-week business skills course.

“I was running my business, but I didn’t know how to operate it well or track my accounts,” Miri said in a video about the program. “My ability as a businesswoman grew from Earth to sky. What I learned about management, marketing and leadership had a profound impact on my business.”

Now, she has hundreds of bee hives and has taught other women the business.

From black to gold

Miri’s experience under the Taliban was not uncommon, and many women had it worse. Some were publicly flogged; their movement was severely curtailed; access to health care was made difficult, and many faced forced marriages while still minors. Those were just a few of the burdens faced by women under the Taliban. Once the Taliban were forced from power, women still faced a host of new challenges.

While Afghan businesswomen still have many hurdles to overcome - they still may need to rely on men for many external dealings such as negotiations and making deliveries - Artemis is making progress toward changing how women are viewed by society at large.

This year’s class of 11 was the fifth class to participate. They were selected from over 250 applicants.They range in age from 22 to 39 and are involved in a wide variety of businesses, including dairy production, hand-carved wood products, media production and website design.

Funding for the program has come from both the private and public sectors, including the U.S. Department of State, Cisco Systems, Goldman Sachs and Microsoft. But according to Ambassador Barbara Barrett, the founder of the program, the most important source of funding has been private individuals.

According to Thunderbird, 74 Afghan women have graduated from the program and their businesses employ over 2,000 women and men.

Just the beginning

The learning doesn’t stop after the two-week program.

Each Afghan woman is paired with a mentor who remains in contact with their mentee for at least two years.

One of this year’s mentors is Dr. Charlotte Cole, senior vice president of global education for Sesame Workshop. The Workshop produces local Sesame Street programs, seen in over 140 countries, including Afghanistan.

“I have traveled to Afghanistan and have been very touched by the extraordinary people I have met there. Despite the challenges confronting them, there is a sense of optimism and hope that is inspiring and motivating,” said Cole. “If there is something I can do to help - even in a small way - it would be an honor and a privilege to support an Afghan woman.”

According to Barrett, the business expertise of the Afghan woman entering the program has skyrocketed over the years, largely because of the networks early graduates established to pass on what they learned.

“One thing the original class committed to was to mentor at least 20 women back in their home communities,” she said.

Barrett said the women of the first class went way further and mentored more than 20.

“The first class was comprised of a lot of women who had only a very basic education or engagement in business,” she added. “Now we get the cream of the crop.”

“We were all blown away by this class of women,” said Amy Scerra, Project Artemis program manager with Thunderbird for Good. “They are resilient, they know what they want, and they speak up for what they want and what they want to do.”

It’s not only the women who directly participate in the Artemis Project who benefit. One of the most important aspects is networking and passing along skills to other women.

Asila, a graduate of this year’s program who runs a saffron business in Herat province, said that while she has big dreams to export the pricey spice overseas, she also plans to share what she’s learned with other women in her province, giving them the opportunity to become entrepreneurs as well.

Cultural shift

Perhaps even more important than what is learned in the classroom and from mentors is the psychological impact the program seems to have on the women.

“The other part of it is the empowerment,” said Scerra. “For the first time, many of them are feeling like they’re supported and people are believing in them. The concept of supporting other women and networking was foreign. We emphasize team building and trust.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Asila, who said that in Afghanistan, when women say they want to do something like start a business, “most people don’t believe they can do it.”

As the women’s influence grows, the hope is there can be some fundamental change in how women are viewed.

Rangina Hamidi, a 2005 graduate of the program who runs an embroidering business, says when a woman earns money, it gives her power and prevents her from being seen as a liability to a family.

“Food, clothing, health, every aspect of [a woman’s] life has to be taken care of by a male figure of the household,” she said in a video about the program. “Now with an ability to earn money at home, they have an ability to be an asset to the family. Indirectly we’re also changing the social dynamics of the society, and that is an important step to changing women’s rights and women’s social reality. By the mere fact that they have money in their hands, they’re making decisions.”

But it’s not only women who are benefitting, said Barrett. During a trip to Afghanistan, she visited the Afghan Women Business Federation, which was primarily established by Artemis graduates. While there, she said she saw men learning computer and business marketing skills from women.

“Men were counting on women and learning from women in a big cultural shift,” she said.

Still, Barrett is realistic about how far Afghan women still have to go.

“We will be thrilled when we don’t have to give the women of Afghanistan a boost,” she said. “We have no perceptions that we’re close to a lack of need. There remains a great deal of need and while there is a need we will continue the program.”

Karen Brown, who teaches operations management and project leadership at Thunderbird, said it’s important to remember that these women all have to control their business and their personal lives.

“None of them have a house husband who says ‘Honey, I’ll do the chores’,” she said “These are courageous energetic women who are doing something that has not been historically common for women and they are to be greatly admired.”

Here's more about Miri's story:



Here's more about Hamidi's story:

You May Like

Philippines, Muslim Rebels Try to Salvage Peace Pact

Peace process faces major setback after botched military operation to find terrorists results in bloody gunbattle between government forces, Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters More

Republicans Expect Long, Expensive Presidential Battle

Political strategist says eventual winner will be one who can put together strongest coalition of various conservative groups that make up Republican Party More

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Engineers have come up with a lever-operated design that makes use of easily accessible bicycle technology More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Margaret Lung from: Reston, VA.
February 12, 2013 4:36 PM
As an American nurse who lived and worked in Lashkar Gah and later, in Kabul, for 5 years(pre Taliban), these two stories brought me to tears. A country is only as strong as its people and finally, the women are starting to learn how to use their power beyond being housewives and mothers. This can only strengthen Afghanistan.
In Response

by: Ali Shahidy from: Kabul, Afghanistan
February 13, 2013 3:35 AM
I really thank you for your constructive comment. And I appreciate your works & efforts in Afghanistan and for the Afghan people.
I do believe in the power of women. Our women can be the change makers. If they take the lead, the changes take place more rapidly. And that's what Afghans need: the women to be on the lead for changes.

We have many women who have great and inspirational stories to tell, just like Miri.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More