Saturday, 27 August 2016

Of guns, Afghans and roses

At a time when issues like sedition, freedom of expression and intolerance are being widely discussed across mainstream media and the society at large in our country, have you ever stopped to wonder about how women survive (and thrive) in strife-torn Afghanistan, despite being deprived of basic human rights?
The story of 26-year-old Homa Usmany is inspirational on many levels. Homa, who hails from Kandahar province in Afghanistan, had to battle against all odds to start up her own tailoring business. “The Kandahar province is an extremely conservative part of Afghanistan. It is largely male-dominated and women don’t have basic rights. We aren’t allowed to speak to men. The security situation isn’t great either so there are plenty of restrictions for women. However, a lot of us women have established home-based businesses and amidst each other we have set up our own network,” shares Homa.
In 2013, Homa started her own home-based tailoring business, through which she provides uniforms for school children. She realised that not many schools had proper uniforms and felt that she needed to step in. “There was no proper organisation in uniforms. Children were just asked to wear black and the clothes they wore were always out of shape. That’s when I decided to start this business. I have already got contracts with various schools, to whom I provide the uniforms,” she says.
It wasn’t an easy ride for Homa to set up her business in a conservative place, which also has the threat of terror looming large.
“It was extremely difficult. There are plenty of security concerns and Kandahar is particularly a male-dominated place. The men basically do whatever they want and deprive women of their rights. They use Islam as a cover for their restrictions. This sort of behaviour is not in any religion or philosophy. These are just man-made rules but are enforced in the name of Islam,”  Homa laments.
Homa is currently in Hyderabad, along with eleven other Afghan women to attend a two-week educational programme on entrepreneurship by the Thunderbird School of Global Management.
Through their philanthropic cause titled Thunderbird For Good, the Arizona-based school has been training young women from emerging and re-emerging economies, to be better entreprenuers. Established 11 years ago, Thunderbird for Good has trained 116,000 women from 60 countries, to help start and grow their businesses in their home countries.
Focussing specifically on Afghanistan, Thunderbird for Good started Project Artemis. Seventy-four women from Afghanistan have participated in the five sessions of Project Artemis. These women have returned to Afghanistan to accomplish inspirational results, creating over 3,000 jobs through their business endeavors, and training over 15,000 fellow Afghans in business and management skills that they learned during their time at Project Artemis.
“These women are really strong. Starting a business, anywhere in the world, is really difficult. But to be able to do it in a war-zone, and with the limitations of being a woman, is unbelievable. These women have so much self-confidence, are dedicated and focused. They are the real superheroes,”  says Kellie Kreiser, executive director, Thunderbird for Good.
For the first since establishing project Artemis, the programme is being held outside the United States, and India has been chosen as the destination. The Afghan women will be in Hyderabad till August 24 before flying to Delhi for the second part of the two-week programme.
“The United States is limiting the number of people coming in from Afghanistan. So we decided to do the programme outside this year. We wanted a place where Afghans can travel comfortably and feel welcome. We thought India is the best location. We also have plenty of alumni from here, who helped us with accommodation and setting up the programme here,”  Kreiser explained.
The entire team of Project Artemis will also be visiting the Indian Business School (ISB) in Gachibowli, during their stay in Hyderabad. “We have a sister programme with ISB, so we thought we’ll have a panel discussion there, where Afghan women can interact with some of the Indian entrepreneurs and graduates. In a way, Afghans are very similar to India, who is the leader in textiles and agriculture. So they can connect to the Indians a lot,”  Kreiser observed.
The entire programme is free of cost for the Afghan women, with all expenses being covered by Thunderbird. There is a stringent application in place to screen the participants.
“We look at what they have accomplished in terms of entrepreneurships. We also like to have representation from both rural and urban Afghanistan. With us, we have a good mix of women from all age-groups. Some of the older ones are street-smart, while the younger ones are good with technology. They all work together and help each other out,”  informs Steven Straiser, professor of entrepreneurship at Thunderbird.
Through Project Artemis, Homa hopes to expand her home-business and open up a market in her hometown, exclusively for women.
“That way, the men won’t have a problem since we will only be talking to women. The market will have 10-15 shops, including a beauty parlour, playground for kids and a coffee shop,”  she adds, with a smile.