By David Montero, The Christian Science Monitor
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - Pashtun Begum used to beg door-to-door in Kabul, offering to wash clothes. It was the only living available, she thought, for a widow like herself.
These days, though, she's learning how to make marble ashtrays and decorative ornaments. An energetic mother of four, she plans to start her own business soon, making and selling her handicrafts from her home.
"I'm a widow and there isn't anyone to help me with my living," says Ms. Begum, who's attending a workshop sponsored by the All Afghan Women's Union, a training center for women entrepreneurs based in Kabul. "I want to make myself self- sufficient through this profession."
The ambitions of Begum, once considered rare for women in Afghanistan, highlight a silent but powerful revolution here. A growing number of female entrepreneurs - some 10,000 have been trained - are emerging from the isolation of war and oppression of the Taliban to contribute toward a more prosperous nation and greater independence for women, observers say.
According to Microfinance Times, 75 percent of all active microcredit borrowers in Afghanistan are now women, many of whom use their loans to start businesses. Beauty parlors, tailoring shops, and bakeries are just some of the enterprises these women now own. Their efforts, observers say, are indispensable in the struggle to reverse decades of deprivation in Afghanistan.
"If we don't have the involvement of women in the peace building process of the country, I don't think it will succeed," says Bibi Gul Mayardest, the owner of Nazu-Ana, an all-women mobile phone repair company in Kabul.
Women in Afghanistan are among the most vulnerable in the world, with a literacy rate of only 14 percent and one of the highest maternal mortality rates anywhere. Years of war and strict religious mores, that confined many to their homes, have both contributed to and compounded these problems. Particularly under the Taliban, millions of women were banned from working and going to school.
But today, observers say, women are actively building a better Afghanistan, often in small and subtle ways. In the Kabul workshop of Suraya Parlika, a pioneering female entrepreneur, Pashtun Begum and 29 other women - mostly widows, beggars, and orphans - spend the afternoon learning how to turn crude pieces of marble into polished works of art, receiving $25 a month as a stipend. When they're ready, they'll strike out on their own, selling the items themselves.
Ms. Parlika, who founded the All Afghan Women's Union 14 years ago, says entrepreneurship has restorative powers not only for women but the nation.
"Businesspeople are the ambassadors of peace in the world. If we've got women entrepreneurs, other women will feel that business can help them make a better life. This creates an atmosphere to create a factory or an industry, and brings in investors," she says.
Women have role in reconstruction
Many agree, pointing out that women, constituting half the country's population, are a huge potential force in the reconstruction effort.
"We can have equal rights with men. This shows that we do have a role in reconstructing our country," says Karima Azimi, a young woman in Herat who, along with 120 others, has received training to start a jam and juice business from her home.
For many women, entrepreneurial skills are also a gateway to a greater sense of independence, allowing them to feel more entitled to their rights.
"One of the things that suppresses women's rights is the economic dependence of women on their husbands. But if they've got economic independence, this suppression will end," says Estorai Hashemi, the deputy director of Herat's Women's Directorate, which helps women get their businesses off the ground.
Business helps women leave homes
As the business grows, old and damaging barriers are coming down.
"One of the problems that makes women depressed is that they're not able to see other people," points out Parlika. Now many women have access to the social sphere for the first time in their lives. "We have cases where the women will take the things they make directly to the market and sell it themselves," says Nooria Banwal, director of women's economic empowerment at the Ministry of Women's Affairs, adding that this was relatively unheard of in the past.
The benefits are not only symbolic. Women are actually earning enough to support themselves. Jamila Allah Muhammed, a mother of six in Kabul, started a small bakery in her home using a microcredit loan from FINCA, a global microcredit agency working in Afghanistan. It's little more than a stove built into the ground, but now she makes enough money selling bread to support her family.
There's also a positive trickle-down effect, with women-owned businesses providing employment and marketable skills to other women.
Fahima Qazizada, an employee of Ms. Mayardest's phone repair shop in Kabul, has lost track of how many cellphones she's fixed, but says she's sure she can solve just about any problem with the whirl of her soldering iron.
"This is the first time I've worked and I feel very happy," she says, blazing the wires on a circuit board.
Women-run business remain taboo
But this is still a revolution in the making. Even in post-Taliban Afghanistan, the idea of women owning businesses and working is still somewhat taboo. For some it's even been life threatening. Parlika says she's been shot at twice in the past three years in the course of training some 500 women to be entrepreneurs. Tolerance is growing, she says, but she still feels insecure.
Others point out that some women, despite owning businesses, still lack control of their profits.
"When a woman makes a carpet, their brothers or fathers often take the money," says Ms. Banwal of the Women's Affairs Ministry. "Although it's spent on the family, it's still not going directly to them."
Things are improving though, she adds. Parlika for one is encouraged by this early progress. She hopes someday to make a museum out of the items Begum and others make, a testament to the women who worked for peace.
"We can see this is the first revolution of Afghanistan. Women beggars, orphans, who managed to make something of themselves after years of deprivation," she says, pointing proudly to a display of marble ashtrays.