The Daily Hustle: Women take to street peddling to feed their families

Sayed Asadullah Sadat • Roxanna Shapour

Afghanistan Analysts Network

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After the Taleban came to power in August 2021, the flow of international funds into the country that helped prop up the economy declined precipitously, and a significant number of people lost their jobs. Women, facing new legal restrictions on work from the Islamic Emirate, have been hit disproportionately hard by unemployment. With few options available to them, an increasing number of women, especially widows and single heads of household, have taken to selling goods from handcarts in an effort to earn a living. AAN’s Sayed Asadullah Sadat has heard from three female street vendors. Their arresting accounts of how the lack of paid work or forced unemployment, driven by the Emirate’s mounting restrictions on women working outside the home, have pushed them into joining the ranks of their male counterparts as street pedlars in Kabul.

When the Taleban took power, they told the tens of thousands of women who worked for the government to stay at home.[1] The Emirate continued to pay these women. 26-year-old Nilofar was one of those to lose her government job. She said that the Emirate eventually stopped paying her salary. Faced with the responsibility of supporting her family of 10 – her two children, disabled husband and his father and four sisters, she took to street peddling to support the family.

Things took a turn for the worse for our family when my husband, who was in the military, lost both his legs and damaged his spine on the battlefield. Money-wise, we had to tighten our belts, but back then, I was working for the government and my salary was enough to keep us going. After the Taleban came to power, I lost my job. They kept paying my salary for a while, but eventually stopped paying me.

I used some of my savings to buy a karachi [handcart]. I sold soda, cigarettes and cold water, but my husband’s injuries required medical attention, so I had to sell the handcart to pay for his treatment. After that, I started selling ice cream. The company gave me the handcart and I get a percentage of what I sell – 2 afghanis [about two and a half US cents] for every small ice cream cone, which sells for 10 afghanis [12 US cents] and 5 afghanis [about five and a half US cents] for the large ones, which go for 20 afghanis [24 US cents]. It comes out at 100 to 200 afghanis [1.17 to 2.33 US dollars] a day. That is enough to pay for our basic needs, including rent and utilities.

Life is hard for a woman in this country and for women street peddlers, it’s doubly hard. We have to endure street harassment which is an unfortunate pastime of some Afghan men. They say and do disgusting things without a second thought.

The Taleban make it difficult for me to work. In the early days, they wouldn’t let me work. They kept telling me that I couldn’t do this work without a mahram. Eventually, a nice Taleb agreed to come to my home and see the situation for himself. He saw the house full of women, my elderly father-in-law and my bedridden husband for himself and helped me get official permission to sell my ice cream. He cautioned me to observe the hijab and stay in one place, but I have to move around. People are poorer these days, they don’t have enough money for luxuries like ice cream and I have to keep moving to crowded locations in search of customers. It’s a game of cat and mouse, evading the Talebs so I can sell my ice cream. Some of them are nice and when I explain my situation, they let me be, but there are those who have no sympathy for my situation at all, they make me move on and leave the area.

So this is how I spend my days, peddling ice cream from Kart-e Parwan to Shahr-e Naw and Wazir Akbar Khan and sometimes all the way to the airport. At the end of the day, I go back to the ice cream company, turn over that day’s earnings and they give me my share every day. I leave the karachi at the company and they fill it overnight with ice cream for me to sell the next day.

I take my meagre earnings and rush home. I pick up some bread along the way. Sometimes when I have the money, I get some vegetables or yoghurt, but I’m worried about the winter when people don’t buy ice cream.

Another Kabuli, 35-year-old Leilma, supports her two daughters and infant son by selling socks and masks in the west of the city. She said she had lost her stock several times after the Taleban confiscated her karachi because she was selling on a main road without a permit from the municipality.

I used to work for a private company as a cook. My husband worked too. We didn’t have an extravagant life, but we had enough money to live a good life and our children were in school. But after the Taleban took over, the economy went bad, and both my husband and I lost our jobs. Last year, after looking for a job in Afghanistan for over a year, my husband went to Iran in search of work. He was caught by the police in Iran and spent some time in jail. Finally, with the help of some friends, he was released. He has a job now, but everything is so expensive in Iran and he can’t send us much money. So it’s up to me to support the family.

I looked for work too, but there were no jobs for women. Finally, I decided to buy a karachi with the money I had left. I bought socks and masks from the Mandawi [Kabul’s central open-air market]. Now, I spend all day hawking my socks and masks. I make 2 afghanis [about two and a half US cents] in profit for every mask I sell and 5 afghanis [about five and a half US cents] for a pair of socks. People aren’t buying masks so much anymore, so I don’t make much money. Most days, I go home without enough money to even buy bread for my children.

My infant son is now malnourished. I heard some organisations give people food and treat malnourished children, but we haven’t received anything and I don’t know where to go to get help. We don’t have a man at home to follow up on these things and find the offices and I don’t have time to do it myself. I can’t miss time from work because every hour I’m not on the street is money lost.

Every day is like an obstacle course. I have to keep on the move because the municipality has rules about street peddlers staying in one place. The Taleban are always bothering me and telling me to move on. Sometimes, they confiscate my karachi and I have to go to the police station to get it back. When I do get it back, my stock is missing and I have to find the money to buy more things to sell. They made me sign a paper several times promising I would not sell on the main roads, but I don’t have a choice; there is no footfall and no customers on the side streets.

48-year-old Maryam has been her family’s sole breadwinner since her husband was killed by a suicide attacker several years ago. Her older daughters used to help her, but she finally decided to leave them at home to protect them from attention from the Taleban and street harassment.

I used to have a proper job working for an international organisation, but after the Republic fell, I lost it and couldn’t find another one. Now, they say women can’t work in offices anymore. I’m a widow with six daughters and a son. It’s up to me to feed my family. There is no one else to provide for us. So, I borrowed money from a relative, bought a karachi and started selling vegetables and greens on the street. At first, my eldest daughters would come along to help me, but they attracted too much attention and we were constantly harassed by men on the street. I finally decided to leave them at home and go it alone. I’m older and I don’t get harassed as much.

Most people are friendly and respectful, but there are always those few bad apples who say off-colour or hurtful things. What can I say? It’s the lot of women on the streets of Kabul. We hear a thousand and one unpleasant things every day. We have to tolerate it; there is no other way. Sadly, this is our culture. When you’re down, people look down on you.

Some Taleban treat me well, but most think women should not be working outside the house and definitely not as street peddlers where all the men can see us. They stop and tell me that I’m not allowed to operate a karachi on the street among non-mahrams [men who are not close relatives]. But I try to meet all obstacles head-on and find a way to get past them. What else can I do? I have to feed my family.

Life is getting more difficult every day. I wish the Taleban would let women work for the government or foreign organisations. Many women don’t have a husband to provide for them and have to find ways to provide for their children. If I could get a job, I could make as much as 5,000 afghanis a month [58 USD] – a living wage. I’m ready to do any kind of work, cooking, cleaning, anything really. I wish I had enough money to start a small business at home and put my girls to work. But I have borrowed money from everyone I know and no one will lend me any more money because they don’t think I can pay them back.

I earn about 150 to 200 afghanis [1.75 to 2.30 USD] a day; if I work every day, it’s enough to meet our expenses. But sometimes, when business is bad or when I’m prevented from selling by the Taleban, I don’t make enough money and we have trouble making ends meet. If I get sick, that’s one day’s earnings gone. Some days, I can’t afford to buy much stock from the vegetable market because the prices have shot up overnight. Still, I have to keep trying. I have no other choice. I’m two months behind on rent and the landlord has been hassling me. The rent is 3,000 afghanis [35 USD] and I don’t know how I’m going to find the money to pay him. I stay up nights worrying that we will end up without a roof over our heads.

At the end of the day, I take a look at what’s left on my cart. Some things will keep for another day, but people buy only fresh produce, so I take the wilted greens and rotten vegetables home and we eat them ourselves. It eats into my profits, but it keeps food on the table and keeps my losses to a minimum.

During the Republic, my husband and I had so much hope for our daughters. They were all in school and we helped them with their homework. We thought they would grow up educated, get office jobs and support us in our old age. Now that future seems like an impossible dream. I don’t know what to do. Where should I raise my voice to ask for help? There is no one to hear us.

Edited by Roxanna Shapour


1 Shortly after the Taleban takeover women in the civil service were told to stay home until further notice. Over the ensuing months more rules and decrees were introduced preventing women from working in December 2022 for NGOs and eventually in April 2023 for the UN. Some working in foreign embassies have also been hit by this ban. Most recently, in July 2023, the Emirate ordered all beauty parlors to shut down, closing off one of the last all-female income sources for women in Afghanistan.

The Daily Hustle: Women take to street peddling to feed their families