On the side of a busy street in Kabul, Afghanistan, there is a restaurant that feels like an oasis away from the traffic jams, constant smog, and terrorist threats. Soothing piano music plays in the background as groups of young women enjoy traditional Afghan dishes. Bost, a restaurant for women - and entirely run by women - opened its doors in the capital of Afghanistan in September last year. Here, women can feel sheltered from the prying eyes of men for a while.
"I wanted to have a place where I could feel safe, where I could enjoy my time sitting in a corner, reading, writing, or even listening to music without getting disturbed or being stared at," says Homira Kohzad, one of the restaurant's founders. "If you go to different restaurants in different parts of Kabul, you don't feel safe." Harassment is common in the city, and it's one of the main reasons why women are hesitant about going out, whether it's to restaurants or for a walk down a street.
During the Taliban rule in the late '90s, women could not go outside without a mahram, a male relative, and a burqa that covered their entire faces and bodies. But after the fall of the regime in 2001, women came out of their houses, and many replaced the burqa with a simple headscarf. According to Kohzad, men have had a hard time getting used to seeing women around, which often results in unwelcome attention. It's also why male relatives can be reluctant to let women go to restaurants alone, even if there is a designated family section. (Women, for their part, might feel equally uncomfortable in a restaurant full of single men.)
But at Bost, women can be seen sitting alone and sampling the restaurant's mouth-watering specialties - such as shola, a rich lentil dish - with their female friends or sometimes with their mothers. In this setting, male chaperones are not needed. The women who come here are often educated and liberal, and many are dressed in modern clothes. Because they do not have to worry about getting stared at, they can wear what they want. "In the beginning, I saw some women coming with their husbands, but after a while the women started coming alone because the men had noticed this place is only for women and families," Kohzad says. According to her, it was a matter of building trust.
Opening a restaurant as a woman is, of course, already something special in Afghanistan. The restaurant is undoubtedly Kohzad's baby: She trained the staff and designed everything from the menu to the interior, which is an interesting blend of traditional Afghan and modern Western style.
But what makes Bost even more unique than its clientele is the fact that it employs women who live in Kabul's women's shelters. The restaurant was originally a project of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center, or AWSDC. The organization, where Kohzad worked as a project manager, provides training and education to women and maintains a number of shelters in the country for victims of gender-based violence. AWSDC was already running a catering business as a source of income generation for the shelters' residents. Kohzad thought the idea could be expanded into the restaurant space.
"Afghans love to eat," she says. "And most of the women are expert chefs. Some of these women, oh my God, they make food that's melting in your mouth; it's like heaven. So why not use their skills?" Currently, the restaurant employs 17 women - 10 in the kitchen, and seven in the front of the house - all of whom live in AWSDC shelters. According to Kohzad, they come from various backgrounds; most are quite young, around 20 years old. "Some of them faced family violence, domestic abuse, and they have been living with us for several years," she says. "Some had to escape from home because their parents were addicted to drugs."
Soraya, 20, has worked as Bost's co-chef since the beginning - for four months now. She also prepares delicious fresh-squeezed juices and special coffees in restaurant's juice bar. About two years ago, her life changed drastically. "I was living in Lahore, Pakistan, with my family," Soraya says. "One day, there was a suicide attack and both my parents were killed. I lost everybody; I didn't have anyone." One of her neighbors took her to Kabul, but abandoned her in an area near the city's largest prison. "I was completely unfamiliar with Kabul," Soraya says. "But luckily a lady took me to her home and sheltered me for the night." The next morning Soraya went to a police station, where she told authorities she didn't have anyone in the city. The police took her to a shelter.
Despite having to go through something so difficult, Soraya has been able to find meaning in her job. "I'm happy now," she says as she prepares mantoo s, lamb-filled dumplings with a splash of yogurt and lentils on top. "Now I know that I can do things in my life."
"I feel good and powerful. I can have my own money and I can spend it on my children."
Manizha, 27, is also happy to have found a job at Bost. She is originally from the north of the country, from the city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Manizha was married off to a man who already had a wife. As the second wife, she faced many difficulties with her in-laws. Manizha gave birth to two children, a daughter and a son, but the problems in the family only increased. "My husband moved to Saudi Arabia and I was left behind with my children," she says. "I needed money to feed them, but he did not send us anything. Finally, my in-laws told me to go back to my father's home." But her parents had died a long time ago, and for her brothers, she was just an additional burden.
Left with no other choice, Manizha took her children and came to the shelter in Kabul. Her brothers were not happy about this, however, and felt she was bringing shame to the family. The society in Afghanistan considers women who run away from home "loose," and there's stigma associated with living in a shelter. Because of this, these women are sometimes sexually abused when they go outside, Kohzad explains, and it's difficult for them to find employment beyond the shelter.
For Manizha, her move to the shelter happened four years ago, and to this day, she constantly fears her brothers will come after her or her children. "Maybe when my children are in school, my brothers will kidnap them," she says. Her dream is to save some money and leave Afghanistan. Today she is happily preparing dishes, such as bolani, a flatbread with vegetable filling, in the kitchen. "I feel good and powerful. I can have my own money and I can spend it on my children," she says.
Customers are kept largely unaware of the staff's backgrounds. According to Kohzad, "Most families, if they became aware of the fact that these women are from shelters, wouldn't come here." Therefore, "to ensure the safety of the women, we mostly keep it confidential," she says.
But the plan is to eventually become more open about this. "Anything you want to do in Afghanistan, it needs time. When people see that they are not different from other women or other families, they would forget it." The restaurant's goal is to ultimately become a franchise operation, but Kohzad also wants to prepare the women for jobs elsewhere. "We give them the opportunity to learn and to be able to stand up on their own feet," Kohzad says. "Maybe they want to become managers of one of these franchises. Or maybe later on they want to open their own restaurants."
The younger generation of working women has claimed Bost as their own.
Most importantly, however, "We want them to feel safe," Kohzad says. "If they feel safe, it would be easier for them to communicate and show a better picture that, see, we are women who have faced some challenges, abuse, or domestic violence in our houses, but we are working here, we are like you." Employing these women has also had another benefit: The fact that all the waitstaff is female helps convince families to allow their women to come to Bost without a male chaperone.
Tahmina Kargar, 25, has come to Bost to enjoy her lunch hour with her colleagues from the BBC. "The thing that sets this restaurant apart from others is the fact that women work here. I feel safer and I like the environment. And also the food," she says while enjoying a steaming plate full of lobia, kidney beans in tomato gravy.
Kargar's colleague Fauzia Ameeri, 29, has come to Bost for the second time. She agrees that the female staff makes women feel more comfortable. "It also feels safer to come here with our male friends because in other restaurants there are lots of people around and we face different kinds of people. I don't know what they might think, but from their reaction we can understand that they don't like men and women to go for lunch together."
The younger generation of working women has claimed Bost as their own more than any other group in the city. "They need a place where they will not be judged," Kohzad explains as she slowly gets back to her work, not minding the fact that her headscarf has long since fallen to her shoulders. Thanks to Bost, there is now a place in Kabul where women can breathe freely for a while.
Maija Liuhto is a freelance journalist based in Kabul, Afghanistan. She writes for Al Jazeera English, the Christian Science Monitor and GOOD Magazine, among others. Ivan Flores is an independent visual journalist based in Kabul covering conflict, political, and cultural issues. Editor: Erin DeJesus