An Afghan business leader who employs hundreds of women on her saffron fields has vowed to speak up for the rights of her workers, and “not remain silent” under Taliban rule.
The hardliners have increasingly excluded women from public life since sweeping to power in mid-August, pushing many female entrepreneurs to flee the country or go into hiding.
“We will raise our voice so that it reaches their ears,” said Shafiqeh Attai, who started her saffron company in the western city of Herat in 2007.
– ‘We will not remain silent’ –
More than 1,000 women pick the brightly coloured crocuses across the company’s 25 hectares (60 acres) of land in the Pashton Zarghon district of Herat Province, which borders Iran.
Employing women allows them to be breadwinners for their families, Attai said, enabling them to send their children to school, and to buy them clothing and other essentials.
– Alternative to opium –
Still, the country remains by far the world’s biggest producer of opium and heroin, supplying between 80 and 90 percent of global output.
The cultivation of poppies has again surged in recent years, as poverty and instability increased. Afghanistan’s production area is now roughly four times larger now than in 2002, according to the United Nations.
Herat Province produces the vast majority of Afghanistan’s saffron.
The pistil of the flower has for centuries been used around the world in cooking, perfumes, medicines, tea and even as an aphrodisiac — and because of its high price has been dubbed “red gold” by those who rely on its cultivation.
Labourers then prise apart the delicate lilac leaves, vivid red stigmas and pale yellow stamens — painstaking work that demands concentration and skill.
Attai is concerned not just about the future of her business, but also for women across Afghanistan who are living in limbo, uncertain about jobs, education and representation in government.
“They haven’t given girls the permission to go back to school and university, and they haven’t given any women posts in the government — I am worried about what will happen,” she added.
“I am worried that 20 years of hard work by these women will go to waste.”
In the 20 years between the US-led ouster of the Taliban in 2001 and the Islamists’ return, many women became business leaders, particularly in cities like Herat.
Younes Qazizadeh, head of the city’s chamber of commerce, told AFP that he hoped the Taliban would make an official announcement to indicate that “women could come back and do business under this government as well”.
“It is our hope to start women’s businesses again in our country,” Qazizadeh added.
Ahead of the US pullout, a mammoth airlift saw 124,000 people evacuated from Kabul airport.
“I don’t think they will block our work,” she added, referring to the Taliban.