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

Multimedia Brussels Schools, Metro Reopen Under Heavy Guard

City remains under the highest threat alert level due to what authorities have described as a 'serious and imminent' threat of attack

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

Americans Think About Strange Stuff at Thanksgiving

Millions of Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving, but they’re not necessarily thinking about turkey and stuffing

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
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.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs