Afghan businesses struggling as Taliban uncertainty deepens

Afghan small businesses struggle to survive as Taliban uncertainty deepens
4 min read
04 September, 2021
Small-business owners and merchants are struggling to make ends meet since the Taliban's return to power last month, with many already talking of closing shop and trying their luck outside the country.
Ordinary Afghans are wondering what they can and can't get away with under Taliban rule [Getty]

For 10 years Fahad made a good living selling wedding gowns at his bridal shop in the Afghan capital, but since the Taliban rolled into town on 15 August he hasn't sold a single dress.

At a nearby tailor for men, Tanveer tells a similar tale – he has sold just one traditional shalwar kameez suit in over two weeks.

Abdul Hassan, meanwhile, hasn't moved a single appliance in his electronics store in 20 days, and has turned off the lights and air conditioner to save money.

But Fawzi, whose family runs a swish general merchandise store in Parwan-e-Seh neighbourhood, is doing better after branching out with a new line – burqas and hijabs.

Small-business owners and merchants are struggling to make ends meet since the Taliban's return to power last month, with many already talking of closing shop and trying their luck outside the country.

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"Nobody has any money," Fahad told AFP at his bridal shop – a fact born out by huge daily queues outside city banks.

The authorities have limited withdrawals to the equivalent of $200 a time.

And Fahad is already changing the way he does business in order not to attract the attention of the Taliban.

He plans to remove the heads from the mannequins modelling his glitzy gowns.

"We can't show pictures or faces of people, so I will take off the heads," he told AFP.

Like all the businessmen AFP spoke to for this article, Fahad asked not to be fully identified – or for his store to be named –for fear of reprisal.

"At the moment we don't know what we can do and what we mustn't do," Fahad said.

"So I am trying to operate like the Taliban were last time."

'Softer Taliban'

That "last time" – from 1996-2001 – Fahad was an early teen and mostly oblivious to the repressive rule of the hardline Islamists.

Women were largely barred from public life, television and music were banned, photographing people was considered idolatry and men were ordered not to shave and to wear only national dress.

The Taliban have promised a softer rule this time around, but in the absence of a government and formal dictates, ordinary Afghans are wondering what they can and can't get away with.

Tailor Tanveer says he doesn't expect to sell another Western-style suit "for a long time".

"I used to wear suits in my shop because I am selling them. We make a good profit," he said.

"But now I am wearing shalwar kameez. Nobody has told me, but I worry in case the Taliban come and check."

Abdul Hassan, meanwhile, fears another ban on watching TV – what will he do with the dozens of top-of-the-range flat screens displayed at his shop?

"Usually I will have them turned on to show YouTube music. People can see the quality and they can buy them," he told AFP.

"But I haven't sold anything for a while. I don't know if I can afford the rent, so I have switched off the electricity to save money," he said.

If things continue this way, he says he will sell his stock to a fellow dealer "at a loss" and try to leave Afghanistan.

"Maybe if I go to Iran, I can then go to Europe," he said, describing a route taken by tens of thousands of desperate Afghans.

Meanwhile, general goods salesman Fawzi spotted an opportunity as soon as the Taliban came to town.

He now sells burqas – even though the Taliban have not ordered women to wear them – alongside an unlikely selection of Chinese-made fishnet body stockings, condoms and boxes of unguents dubiously labelled "organ growth cream".

"I have sold 60 burqas in two weeks," he told AFP. "I have sold even more hijabs," he added, referring to the head covering that leaves the face exposed.

Still, Fawzi had an ominous call when he branched out last week and offered to buy secondhand appliances from fleeing Afghans.

"I advertised on Facebook and someone called my number," he said.

"They told me to stop doing this, as I was encouraging Afghans to leave. They wanted to know who I was and where my shop was."

He deleted the advert and threw away his SIM card.