Page last updated at 12:07 GMT, Wednesday, 1 July 2009 13:07 UK

Woman's shop breaks Afghan mould

By Rustam Qobil
BBC Uzbek service

Raqiba Barmaki
Men were hostile to Raqiba Barmaki when she opened her shop in Mazar e Sharif

Women find it difficult to break into the jobs market in Afghanistan but in Mazar-e- Sharif one woman has defied men's hostility to become the city's only female shop-owner.

All the roads in Afghanistan's well planned northern capital lead to the holy Shrine of Hazrat Ali, Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law.

As a place of pilgrimage, the tomb is magnificent.

But it is surrounded by huge multi-storey shopping malls and bazaars bustling from dawn to dusk: Mazar is the trade centre of the North.

You can find almost everything here, Indian saris, Turkish shoes, home wares from Iran, Chinese clothes and even alcohol, smuggled in from Uzbekistan.


The shopkeepers are men because trade is thought of as a man's job.

Woman in Afghanistan
Some women who lose their family's breadwinner have to beg

Away from the big shopping malls, between two busy roads near the Holy Shrine, a few burkha-clad women with children are browsing through brightly coloured traditional clothes.

There is nothing unusual about this small shop, except that it is run by a woman. Mazar-e-Sharif's only female shop keeper.

Raqiba Barmaki is a former teacher but she now sells traditional clothes for women and children as well as cutlery, dried fruits and perfumes.

She makes the clothes at home with her daughters, but also sells goods made by other local women, who can't sell their wares themselves.

Not everyone likes what she does.

"Men were hostile towards me when I opened this shop four years ago," Raqiba says, "now I think they are getting used to me. In many families shop keeping is not thought to be suitable for women. I am lucky, I have my husband and children on my side."

A few years ago another woman tried to sell perfume and make-up on a street-stall in Mazar-e- Sharif, but she had to quit because of hostility from some men.

In Afghanistan, there are few jobs available for women and those families without a male breadwinner face hardship.

Women come not only to shop, but also for advice
Women come not only to shop, but also for advice

The lucky ones might find work as cooks or laundry workers in the cities, but the unlucky ones often end up begging.

Raqiba Barmaki says that not all of her female clientele come to her to shop.

"They seek advice as to how to start their own business and some even ask me to employ them," she says.

But at the moment, Raqiba cannot offer any jobs in her tiny shop which is barely big enough for two to three people at a time.

No regrets

She has invested $10,000 (£6,000) to open it and still struggles to pay the rent and the bills.

"There are fewer costumers now. Drought, mass unemployment and the recent credit crunch hit us badly," she says

Despite her problems she has no regrets over her choice.

"My shop does not have the best site. It is not in the main market. But it helps me to feed and educate my children and make myself independent," she says.

"And women feel free and comfortable shopping here. They measure clothes, order lingerie or other things they wouldn't do in other shops," she adds.

In the capital Kabul, there are more women running shops, despite the security fears and hostility.

But the instability in Southern Afghanistan has had an impact in the north too.

Just a few years ago many women felt free to go outside with just a headscarf; now many of them put their burkas back on.

New shopping centre
Mrs Barmaki wants a shop to one of the new developments in the city

An elderly woman, visiting Raqiba's shop says that many women weave carpets, embroider clothes or bake biscuits and cakes, but they don't know how to start their own businesses.

"It is always men who are in control. If we had more female shop keepers like Raqiba then other women would be able to sell their goods," she says.

Raqiba meanwhile hopes to move on soon.

"I want to expand my business and rent a bigger place in one of these modern shopping centres," she says. "But I can't pay the required $3000 (£1,800) monthly rent right now."

Such ambitions seem distant for many women in Afghanistan, but others might follow Raqiba Barmaki's example, contributing to Mazar e Sharif's reputation as the trade centre of Northern Afghanistan.

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