KABUL: Wearing a long flowing chador through which only her eyes are visible, 36-year-old Freshta Rasooli drives her solar-powered rickshaw cart around Kabul, selling noodles, beef burgers and traditional spicy rice outside offices and university campuses.
Rasooli’s presence on the streets, behind the handlebar of a rickshaw cart and partaking in a traditionally male-dominated profession, is a rare sight in Afghanistan. It’s not an easy country to be a woman, with forced marriages, domestic violence and high maternal mortality rates.
But access to public life has improved, especially in cities such as the capital Kabul, where many women like Rasooli now work outside the home and more than a quarter of the parliament is female.
So far, Rasooli and the other 55 women drivers at Banu’s Kitchen have not faced any attacks from militants or opposition from conservatives, who in the past have harshly deplored women drivers.
“People appreciate and have good words for me for working to earn an income for my survival, rather being a burden,” Rasooli told Arab News outside Kabul University as she packed burgers for two female students. “I enjoy the work and it has given me courage and self-confidence.”
The business is owned by 27-year-old Farhad Wajdi, who was born in a refugee camp in Pakistan and returned to Afghanistan in 2017. The following year, wanting to help Afghan women, he set up Banu’s Kitchen, starting with hand-pushed carts that he soon realized were too cumbersome to push during Kabul’s hot summers and blistering winters.
Wajdi then came up with the idea of using solar-powered rickshaw carts. His business now employs 60 women, of whom 55 are drivers while five cook the food at a rented compound.
“Our experiment worked,” Wajdi told Arab News.
The women drivers earn around $4 a day and work six days a week. Rasooli described the meagre salary as a blessing in a country where, according to the Ministry of Economy, 34 percent of the population is unemployed.
“I see Afghan women as a big human resource that deserves to be equipped with knowledge and other skills to have equal contribution in the economic development of Afghanistan,” Wajdi said.
A customer, Dawlat Shah, said he supported women entering male-dominated professions.
“I’m glad women are getting involved in such work and businesses, just like men,” Shah said, as he stood next to a cart and paid the equivalent of 80 cents for a plate of macaroni noodles.
Wajdi hopes that he can expand his fleet of 25 carts to 80 carts by the end of the year, and said he was overjoyed to be invited to meet Afghanistan’s first lady, Ruhla Ghani, this January.
He is hopeful, he said, that the government would allot him land free of cost so he could move out of the expensive rented compound from where his business currently operates. “The first lady invited us for a meeting and we met her and discussed how we can involve the government to help us expand this initiative across Afghanistan,” Wajdi said. “She wanted to know what help she could offer to help our organization expand.”