Taleban shuts 'widow's bakeries'
Bakeries Sustain Afghan Widows Eager for Food-and Work

Asia: U.N.-run sites help feed families and offer a reprieve from the Taliban regime's job ban and drastic dress code.

Los Angeles Times
By DEXTER FILKINS, Times Staff Writer
July 2, 2000

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.

A group of 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 preventing her from working, Najeeba could barely keep her family alive. Now she looks forward to coming into the bakery and tearing off her burka.

"When we come here, we are feeling lighter," she said.

The program is the brainchild of the U.N. World Food Program, which oversees efforts 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.

Like few others, the widows of Kabul illustrate the city's tragedy. About 35,000 families in the city--one in every eight--are headed by widows, many of whom are in their 20s and 30s. In a city rife with hunger, households headed by widows are made more desperate by the ban on women in the workplace. Each day in Kabul, women wander the streets and beg, pleading through the burkas that hide their faces.

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 found herself suddenly alone, a young widow without any 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 from malnutrition, weakened and lost the ability to walk. Last month, 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.

"I am very happy, very grateful," Nasima said, her hands and face dusted with flour. "Through this work, maybe I can help my children."

For eight hours, Nasima works with a determined grace, as do her colleagues, happy in their toil. At the end of each day, she picks up the throwaway scraps of bread and takes them home to her son and three daughters. She bristles at the Taliban soldiers, who ride about the ruins in pickup trucks looking for violators of their laws.

"When we are together, everyone here is talking about how the Taliban has destroyed our lives," she said. "They won't let us go to school because they want us to be illiterate like them. They make us wear the burkas because they can control us if we are blind."

Two years ago, the Taliban closed down a school attended by her two healthy daughters. Today, Nasima sends them to one of the many clandestine schools for girls that have sprung up around Kabul in recent months. Taliban enforcers have raided such schools in the past, but so far the one her children attend is safe.

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 staff at Kabul's few hospitals has 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 down 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.

No one knows how long the Taliban will allow the bakeries to function. When a Western reporter visited the Airport Road bakery last month, a group of young armed Talib men loitered just down the street.

The widows who work at Kabul's bakeries are the envy of other women who gather in the early morning to pick up their bread.

Kabul's women often look to Western relief agencies for help and kindness, and rumors of new opportunities travel quickly: When World Food Program officials told the female bakers that they were planning to hire 600 women to conduct a house-to-house survey of Kabul's neediest families, more than 1,000 women applied for the jobs in 48 hours.

The U.N. agency had to secure the Taliban's permission to hire women because, under the Taliban's own rules, only women may interview other women.

At the Airport Road bakery, 13 women stand around a wood-fired oven, called a dosh, and pat out the loaves in assembly-line style. Each day, the women bake 1,755 loaves of Afghan bread, a flat disk that resembles a pizza crust.

Each woman who comes to the gate outside receives five loaves a day, seven days a week, for about 4 cents. Most of the wheat--500 tons a month to supply the 25 bakeries--is provided free by the U.S. government. The bread is sold to the women at a 90% discount.

As the day passed at the Airport Road bakery, the talk drifted to the years before the Taliban took control. It was not a happy time, with war and invasion, but all things are relative, and some of the women found themselves wishing for a future that looked like their past.

"Everything was open then--there were no scarves, no burkas, nothing like that," said Fatima, a 30-year-old widow with three children. "We don't know if that time will come again."

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