Fatema Akbari: Protectress of Afghanistan
In the midst of the wreckage and ruin in the 13th district of Kabul, a tattered tent stands tall, giving inspiration to all who pass by. The constant mechanical buzzing and hammering heard outside are far from pleasant, but to the 80 or so women inside, it is music to their ears compared to the harsh sound of bullets and bombs. Many have even encountered the violence firsthand, and as a result, live as widows following the deaths of their husbands. Shunned by a traditional, unjust, and patriarchal society, they have found hope in the most unlikely place: a woodworking workshop contained entirely in a large tent. By learning a “man’s trade,” they challenge public stigmas, but are able to make a living one wood plank at a time. “We really enjoy this work. It is interesting and it gives us a salary,” says Salima, the breadwinner of her family ever since her husband lost his leg. “I can send my five children to school and one day they will be able to support me.”
One woman makes all of this possible: Fatema Akbari. Her family learned carpentry during their stay in Iran, where they relocated in order to escape the remorseless Taliban. “I remember well the day when I first entered the factory for learning. The workers around me were not women, rather, I found myself landed among men that made me cautious how to work,” says Fatema; “Initially they looked at me with devouring eyes, but after a few days when they saw my passion for my profession. They held out respect to me and helped me to take my skills to a new height.” Fatema eventually returned to the country, married, and started a family. Then one day, everything changed.
On a simple grocery trip, the Taliban fired rockets at Fatema’s husband, killing him instantly. “He was blown up. His body lay in the street for three days afterwards, because it wasn’t safe to go to get it,” she sobbed. In order to provide for her four children, Fatema took a precarious risk by starting her own business in 2003 after borrowing from loan sharks. In spite of all the odds against her, she was able to attend university classes to gain management skills and soon hired a handful of workers. “It was a head-reeling moment for me, as many men workers refused to work with me, while getting skilled women workers had become a distant dream, so I had to begin my business with cooperation from my family members—two sons and a daughter,” Fatema stated. “I don’t know how we survived.”
Eventually, new workers became plentiful and everyone involved adjusted to their new lifestyles. The women got used to the long daily journey to work, which would take up to two hours for some of them. The financial and vital stability the job offers incentivizes the women to continue their efforts, as every work they sell means another paycheck. On average, the women make around $4 a month, just enough for a relatively comfortable life in Afghanistan. On good months, some may even make up to 500 afghani, or around $9. Of course, Fatema herself is never short of tasks, as she deals with business contacts, the occasional new student, and getting ahold of often scarce materials. Since many of the women are the sole parents of their families, they often bring in their children to work, where they can play in a makeshift schoolhouse. Some of them, inspired by their mothers, even go on to learn a bit of carpentry themselves. “I come here because I want to learn something, not for the money,” says 13-year old Hortena.
Now, almost a decade after its foundation, Fatema’s business has expanded beyond all expectations, despite retaining its humble original facility. “This is just the start of my work,” Fatema voices, “I want to work in 34 provinces of Afghanistan. We have five locations so far, even one in Helmand Province. But I want to work all over the country, helping people help themselves.” 2,000 female workers have come and gone, and many have learned much more than just carpentry. Indeed, with Fatema’s help and extensive set of skills, many women left the tent knowing how to read, process food, and tailor their own clothes. Fatema herself has attended many seminars, award ceremonies, and other programs since then after gaining recognition and praise. With her continued altruistic efforts and true compassion for all who seek her help, Fatema Akbari remains an important player in the Afghan community, breaking not only traditional Islamic gender roles, but also the very the grip that had previously restricted the country for so long. Despite the obstacles her conservative society throws against her, Fatema still stands unfazed today as she paves the path for the dreams of thousands.