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Afghan Women Rising

Author: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy
Fall 2010
Ms. Magazine

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In an airy two-story house behind a metal gatewatched over by an armed guard in Afghanistan's capital city, Fatima Hakim Zada sits in a hulking black leather executive chair in front of a newish silver Dell computer and explains why she went into the construction business.

“I was in Afghanistan and I saw the civil war; I saw everything damaged and destroyed,” she says. “This thought was always in my head: ‘I have to be in construction; I have to help improve the conditions here.'”

Though barely in her late 20s, Hakim Zada speaks, in her tentative English, like a veteran entrepreneur. She got her start in business at 8 years old when the Taliban took over Kabul. She and her sister and mother launched a carpet company in their living room, providing work for more than 50 women in their neighborhood. Once the Taliban left and the international community arrived, the young woman took what she had learned from her work and headed to university. But before long, she was back in business, while continuing her studies.

Demo Ltd., the firm Hakim Zada started with her uncle in 2002, now counts 75 employees and has completed more than 20 construction projects across the country, including roads and airports. Hakim Zada graduated from Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Women program—which offers five weeks or more of management training—and is now mentoring other aspiring businesswomen. She is also helping make a business plan for a kindergarten her younger sister hopes to open.

Hakim Zada is hardly alone in embracing entrepreneurship as a path to progress for women and their families. Six years ago, Bakht Nazira Niazi started her own business selling women's clothing and shawls. She expanded into a Kabul storefront she now shares with her husband, who has launched a line of women's jewelry. Both have taken part in the New York nonprofit Bpeace's program for high-potential entrepreneurs. Niazi exports to U.S. customers, helps other women in Kabul and the country's provinces launch their own ventures, and has even joined other businesswomen in lobbying the Afghan government for more women- and business-friendly policies.

“The economy is the basis of everything in our families,” says Niazi.  “If you are working and you have a good job, you can educate your children and you will have far less problems in society.”

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