Let Women Show You Who They Are, and Change Will Happen
By Victoria Barone
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Tarana Amini, the human resources manager for IESC’s Assistance in Building Afghanistan by Developing Enterprises Program in Kabul. Tarana has been with the ABADE Program since it started in 2012. In 2016, IESC honored her with the Tarek Nabhan International Achievement Award, which recognizes team members in the field who regularly go above and beyond to achieve excellence.
Tarana and I discussed how she started her career, what it’s like to work in Afghanistan as a woman, and how she sees the future of women’s equality in Afghanistan.
“I have to make sure no one from my neighborhood, or even my close relatives, know where I work. . . Although Afghanistan is improving, it is still a dangerous place for women, especially the emancipated ones.”*
Tarana said it is difficult—and even dangerous—to work as a woman in Afghanistan, especially working, as she does, with a team of primarily men, in development, and on a USAID project. Tarana must be very aware of and take great care with how she dresses and behaves. She said that, despite how difficult this can be, with the help of her family and colleagues, she has been able to overcome these obstacles. She believes that while it is still dangerous for women to work in Afghanistan, the situation is improving.
Tarana did not always intend to have a professional career. Previously, the situation with the war in Afghanistan was so bad that her family had to leave the country. They went to Pakistan, where Tarana went to school and learned English and basic computer skills. Being in Pakistan, she said, gave her a chance that other Afghan girls did not have. She sounded very thankful for the educational opportunity.
“At the beginning, my only motivation was to help my family. . .and to see them happy. Eventually, what gave more motivation for my career was to contribute to building my country, and especially in a sensitive political environment.”
After her family returned to Afghanistan, Tarana got an entry-level job to help support her family. She worked hard for a number of years, building her education and skills. Success at work—and being recognized for her efforts with promotions—motivated Tarana to work even harder. And she began to think about working as a way to help build her country.
When I asked her what she most enjoys about her career, Tarana said working in human resources allows her to help ensure that women have rights and protections in the workplace, so they are better off than she was when she first started working.
“I thought, if I let him behave like this, they’ll all behave that way.”
Talking more specifically about being a woman in the Afghan workforce, Tarana believes it’s important to stand up against gender norms and expectations in the workplace. She recalled an incident where a male colleague shouted at her in the office. Instead of letting it go, she sat down with him one-on-one to discuss the issue. She wanted to make it absolutely clear to him and to others in the office that it was not okay to treat her that way.
Tarana’s managers and colleagues were supportive. More importantly, she relied on a female colleague and mentor who had undergone similar experiences and was able to advise her and give her the courage to stand up for herself.
“To me, a role model is a person who has positively influenced my life, and who has helped shape my personality and my character. They are people we can look up to for advice in a hard situation.”
Tarana has benefitted from a number of role models and mentors who have actively supported her career development. First and foremost among them is her mother, the woman who inspires her the most and who, Tarana said, pushes her to be proud of who she is, make decisions she believes in, and never to be ashamed. Tarana also named several colleagues on the ABADE Program—both men and women—who have provided support, advice, and comfort. Among them is her boss, Miroslav Levanic, whom she describes as her “best friend” and the most important person in her professional life.
“Looking back to the Taliban time, I thought very clearly that there was no future for women. But looking at the current situation in Afghanistan, I am sure that one day we’ll change things. It may take a bit longer, but we will achieve women’s equality.”
Tarana admitted that in the past she did not have much hope for women in Afghanistan. Now there are women in the workplace, women in the government. She is confident there will be equal rights between men and women. “They are going to help their country, their families. . .It is not that far off.”
“It is on us [women]. If we want, we can do anything. If we sit at home and we just. . .tolerate these problems, then it will never happen,” she said. “But if we work for ourselves, for our country, for our families, we will achieve it.”
Tarana can see for herself the progress that is being made through her work with ABADE. The program has supported about 300 small and medium enterprises in Afghanistan through investment partnerships that help companies modernize or expand. About 20 percent of all the businesses receiving support from ABADE are owned or co-owned by women. It used to be that if a woman owned a company, her husband was the president. But now Tarana sees women-owned businesses with husbands and brothers working under and reporting to their wives and sisters.
Tarana ended our conversation this way:
“To my brothers, to the men: they should not think that they are the only source that can help the family or the country. They should also look to the women to help, and they should count on us. Because if they count on us. . .if they give us the chance, we will show them who we are and how we can support them. . .and the success of our country.”
*Quotes from Tarana have been lightly edited for language and clarity.
Victoria Barone is the gender intern at IESC. She is a first-year graduate student in the International Development Studies master’s program at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.