By the side of a busy road in Northwestern Kabul, the savory smell of bolani, traditional vegetable-stuffed flatbread, wafts out of a cloth-walled, temporary building.

Inside, a woman in a hijab and a white apron is starting to clean up the balloons, ribbons and empty plates strewn across tables. She is a server at this rarest of Afghan businesses: a dine-in restaurant for women, called Banowan-e-Afghan (Dari for "Afghan ladies"). The restaurant is run by women, for women: While men can order takeout, only female customers are allowed inside.

This pop-up restaurant opened in March and within a few days was already drawing customers. On this day, a group of young women in headscarves and long robes had come to celebrate a birthday party — a rare festive gathering of females in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

It has been a busy couple of days for the woman behind this enterprise.

"Last night, customers were coming but I'd already sent everyone home. I had no choice but to start working on my own," says Samira Muhammadi, 31, a mother of three.

The women employed here come from underprivileged backgrounds. Many are widows and often the sole breadwinner in their family.

"I thought these vulnerable women should have a source of income," Muhammadi says. "One of the women has six children, and her husband passed away. There is no other way for her to bring food on the table."

In Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, opportunities for women to control their own fates are becoming rarer. The administration has curtailed girls' and women's right to education, banning them from secondary schools and universities (temporarily, the Taliban claims). The Taliban in December also barred women from working for NGOs and, more recently, for the United Nations, sparking concerns about the future of aid in the country.

Two-thirds of the country's population are in need of "urgent humanitarian assistance," according to the U.N.

The desperate economic situation drives women to Muhammadi. The word travels fast: Wherever they are, when they hear that she pays 100 Afghani ($1 U.S.) a day, they seek her out, Muhammadi says. "Even the beggars on the road come here looking for work."

Dwindling opportunities for Afghan women

Even before the Taliban returned to power, women's lives have been strictly controlled in culturally conservative Afghanistan.

Despite the restrictions in place for NGOs, the U.N. and most government jobs, women are still allowed to work in the private sector in Afghanistan. Yet many face pressure not to.

"Some families do not want the women in their families to work in the same office as men who are not related to them. In some rural areas, women are not allowed to leave the house without a mahram (a blood male relative or their husbands), so this limits their job options," explains Roxanna Shapour, a researcher with Afghanistan Analysts Network.

"This leaves the private sector as one of the only avenues for women to work and earn a living, making places like Banowan-e-Afghan and other businesses very important to women who are trying to pay the rent and put food on the table for their families," Shapour says.

Whether a women's restaurant can succeed in Afghanistan's devastated economy is another question. Muhammadi's previous business demonstrates the risks: She used to run a women's tailoring shop just down the road, but business ground to a halt amid the political turmoil and economic nosedive.

Muhammadi sold her sewing machines and used the money to launch a new venture. Eventually that led to this pop-up women's eatery behind walls of fabric, which launched with a staff of ten, including a couple of temporary male hires to help get the business up and running.

It is not common for women to visit restaurants on their own in Afghanistan, for fear of harassment by men. Many restaurants have designated family areas where men can only enter if they're accompanying female relatives. But a whole restaurant dedicated to serving and employing women is quite rare, and, according to analyst Shapour, fills an important niche.

"It's not only important for the women who work there; the restaurant also provides a space for women to gather and socialize outside the home. When women's access to public life is shrinking, any move to keep this space open for women is paramount," Shapour says.

Muhammadi says having an all-female serving staff makes all the difference. "The female waiters make women comfortable here," she says.

A visit from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue

As owner of a women-only restaurant, Muhammadi has had to navigate some tricky situations.

Just the day before the birthday party, the Taliban's Ministry of Vice and Virtue paid a visit to check if the restaurant was complying with religious edicts, as they had at other nearby restaurants. Some of the Talibs were carrying guns, Muhammadi says, alarming the staff. "The girls got scared and started running away. This made the Taliban even more suspicious," she says.

She says the Taliban didn't like the fact that women were working together with two male cooks in the kitchen. Mohammadi says she had to hire the men temporarily to train the female staff and help with heavy lifting while the restaurant got on its feet. She should put up a partition between them, the Taliban said, so men and women would have separate spaces. That, of course, would make training the women much harder.

Some of the female employees have decided to stay at home because of the incident.

Surprisingly, one of the first customers today is a Talib. He doesn't step inside and orders takeout mantus, traditional meat-stuffed dumplings, from outside. According to Muhammadi, he also works at the Vice and Virtue ministry, though he wasn't among the Taliban who came to inspect the restaurant the previous day.

"He helps me a lot [with the authorities]," Muhammadi remarks as the man collects his takeout order and leaves.

In Afghanistan, families are often afraid their female relatives will be harassed on the way to work or at the workplace. At Banowan-e-Afghan, two of the female employees' families have forbidden them from coming to the restaurant for this reason. So they prepare the food in their own kitchens. "They do their work at home and the food is brought here," Muhammadi explains.

A lifeline for women workers

Eighteen-year-old Sahar Azizi works in the kitchen, preparing mantu and aashak, vegetable-filled dumplings. "My father passed away about ten months ago. My sister is working as a teacher, but my big brother hasn't been able to find work," she explains.

Azizi's father used to support the family on his own, driving a taxi. When he died, the family's finances took a hit. Azizi's sister knew Muhammadi and recommended that she try to find work with her.

"After my father's death, I felt really alone. I was crying all day. I needed something to keep myself busy," Azizi says.

She says she likes her current job in the kitchen. "Working has improved my mood," she says.

Most of the women working at the restaurant are in their 20s, 30s and 40s, but there are a few teens, as young as 13. With school out of the question, Muhammadi says she made the difficult decision to employ younger girls, even though she believes they shouldn't be working at this age.

Hosna Muhammadi (no relation to Samira Muhammadi) is just 14. Her father is unemployed, and her family is large: She has six sisters and two brothers. Her elder brother has gone to neighboring Iran for work.

"I started working here so I could help my family pay the rent," she says. Another reason was the closure of schools for girls. "There was nothing to do." Her dream was to study law, but she hasn't been able to attend school for two years.

Muhammadi works 12 hours a day as a server – a long shift for a young teen. "I do prefer not having to work. But this isn't bad either," she says. She has made friends with the other women and girls at the restaurant.

"This is the only place I can work. If Samira didn't have this restaurant, none of us would be working," she says.

'Just because a family is wealthy, it doesn't make the woman wealthy'

The economics for women in Afghanistan have been precarious since long before the Taliban, as Samira Muhammadi knows from firsthand experience.

She was born into a relatively well-off family, but after Muhammadi married, she faced financial stresses. "We lived in a rented house. My husband lost his job as a translator and suddenly we couldn't afford the rent," she says. "The landlord was knocking on our door every day."

Muhammadi decided to sell all her jewelry, but the couple still couldn't afford food except for days-old bread. (When a woman marries in Afgahanistan, she is usually considered the financial responsibility of her husband and his family, says analyst Shapour.)

"I realized that just because a family is wealthy, it doesn't make the woman wealthy. She must have her own money," she says.

Muhammadi's father eventually came to her aid and gave her a sum of money to start the tailoring business. Her own experience made her want to help other women in dire straits, and the business allowed her to teach hundreds of women to make clothes – a skill that could help them become more self-sufficient or even start their own businesses.

If the restaurant does well, Muhammadi plans to employ more disadvantaged women and pay better salaries. Ultimately, she also wants to make the space larger and hopes to host exhibitions of women's handicrafts. "Here the customers could buy for example clothes or jewelry directly from the women who made them."

As the afternoon draws to a close at Banowan-e-Afghan, the last few women attending the birthday party have finally left, leaving the restaurant quiet. Muhammadi and her employees sit down and relax for a while before, in just a few hours, the waitresses are busy once again taking orders and running food from the kitchen to tables of women customers.

Maija Liuhto is an author and multimedia journalist covering Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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