Afghan bakeries put women to work

U.N. program represents breach of Taliban rule

July 09, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

KABUL, Afghanistan - Four years after Taliban clerics abolished most of the rights of women in Afghanistan, a fortunate few are finding solace - and survival - in baking loaves of bread.

About 350 women, some with professional degrees, fan out across the ruins of this city each morning, shed their mandatory head-to-toe burkas and plunge their hands into mounds of dough.

It's tedious work, but in a country where almost no women hold jobs, the bakeries mark a tentative but significant breach in the Taliban's radical Islamic rule. Because the jobs - and most of the bread - are set aside for widows with children, the bakeries are helping to sustain families otherwise on the edge of starvation.

"The life of Afghan women is so bad - we are locked at home and cannot see the sun," said Najeeba, a 35-year-old widow with five children who stood without her burka at the Airport Road bakery here in the capital.

Before the Taliban came to power, Najeeba, a college graduate, worked as an engineer. With her husband dead and the Taliban prohibiting her from working, Najeeba could barely keep her family alive. Now she looks forward to coming into the bakery.

The program is the brainchild of the United Nations World Food Program, which oversees the effort to alleviate Afghanistan's annual food shortages. The agency's leaders, eager to get food to what is perhaps the country's neediest group, came up with the idea three years ago.

But it wasn't until earlier this year that the bakeries achieved a measure of independence from the country's leaders. Today, the 25 bakeries provide bread to about 7,000 families headed by widows - as well as jobs for women.

"The women get income from these jobs, but it's more than that," said Peter Goossens, the World Food Program's deputy director in Kabul. "Suddenly they feel useful again."

The bakeries, tucked away in rented buildings across the city, represent some of the only signs of progress after nearly four years of Taliban rule.

The movement took control of Kabul after the years of civil war that followed the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989.

Taliban clerics imposed a Draconian form of Islamic law whose harshest edicts fall on women: They are barred from working and studying and must cover their heads, faces and bodies when they walk the streets.

The story of Nasima, a 35-year-old woman whose name has been changed to protect her identity, mirrors that of many who work in the World Food Program bakeries. When her husband died in a rocket attack on the city in 1996, Nasima became a young widow without means to provide for her four children. Defying the Taliban's ban on working, she secretly washed clothing for the more fortunate of the city.

It wasn't enough. Two of her children, suffering malnutrition, weakened and lost the ability to walk. Recently, Nasima started work at the WFP bakery. With 12 other women, she stands at the front of the wood-fired oven and shovels the loaves in and out. For her efforts, she receives five loaves of bread each day - and $1.

Taliban leaders shrug off complaints about their treatment of women, even as aid officials report that conditions for Afghanistan's women have worsened.

Until recently, the only women permitted to work were physicians - because, under Taliban rules, male doctors are prohibited from treating women. In recent weeks, the female staffs at Kabul's few hospitals have been drastically scaled back.

"These are our traditions," Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel said in an interview. "We do not agree with human rights as defined by the Western countries."

Officials with the World Food Program started the bakeries three years ago but shut them after persistent Taliban harassment, much of it due to the regime's objections to the female staff. WFP officials agreed to reopen the bakeries in March only after Taliban leaders agreed to let the agency run the facilities independently.

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