On a busy afternoon in Bamiyan, Central Afghanistan, men in turbans and skull caps are returning from their prayers to their shops in a bazaar, while just around the corner, fast-paced dance music is blazing from the loudspeakers of a café where young women sit, giggle and take photos of their sandwiches, kebabs, and salads.
Bamiyan Women's Café, a project of a German NGO called HELP, has been serving food, coffee, and snacks to Afghan women for almost three years now. Opened in 2015, the café has since become more than just a place to grab a quick bite: It has turned into a popular venue for young women and girls who would otherwise struggle to find a safe space outside of their homes to spend their free time.
Bamiyan is in a remote and poor area, mainly known to outsiders for its Buddha statues (which the Taliban regime destroyed in early 2001, only months before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan). These days, the province is one of the most secure and liberal areas in an otherwise deeply conservative and conflict-ridden country. In Bamiyan, more women can be seen in the streets than elsewhere-burkhas are also not as common here as they are in other areas of the country. But what might be considered liberal in Afghanistan is often still extremely conservative by Western standards.
"Women feel comfortable here," Wazira Ibadi, 22, says as she sips her tea at one of the café's tables. She says this is because men are not allowed to come to the café unless they are accompanied by a woman.WATCH: HOW-TO: Goat Kebab
The café has a friendly and fresh vibe. Today, there are no men here and most of the customers are young, educated, and clearly fashion-conscious. It's also become a popular spot for organizing parties-a rare treat in a country where women's celebrations are usually extremely private occasions, taking place in gender-segregated rooms at home.
But mostly, being able to just sit and talk somewhere without having to worry about men is cause enough for celebration.
Benazir Ibadi, 24, Wazira's sister, a graduate of journalism and mass communication, sits in a corner with Wazira over hot cups of green tea.
"I come here regularly just to have tea or talk to friends or something like that," she says. "We are happy that there is a place like this in Bamiyan. It gives us the freedom to come here, stay, eat, and talk with friends."
Ibadi says she has seen women bring their male friends to the café. Elsewhere, this would be difficult because of the social restrictions around interactions between women and men.
Aziza Mohammadi, 20, the restaurant's manager, runs between the counter and the tables, taking orders and serving food. The women order French fries, burgers and bulani, a traditional Afghan flatbread stuffed with chives or potato. At lunchtime, the café is packed and it is hard to find a place to sit. According to Mohammadi, this is usually the case: "Women are limited in their choice of restaurants here. That is why this café is so popular."
A quick visit to a busy restaurant across the street proves Mohammadi's point: all the customers there are male.READ MORE: If You're a Man, You'll Pay 18% More at This Cafe
Mohammadi has worked in the café for three years, and today she manages the all-female staff of two. There used to be more women working here but recently, despite the café's continuing popularity, it's not earning as well as it used to.
Khadija Ahmadi, 25, who has been the owner of the café since 2015, says this is because of men.
"[Last year single] men were allowed to come to the café, but there were requests from the people and the province for that to stop," Ahmadi says.
Although the café was always oriented towards women, the presence of single men made some of the female customers feel uncomfortable, Ahmadi says. But there was also another reason why the community started requesting a ban on lone men. "People started saying that this is a place for women to meet with their boyfriends," Ahmadi says.
"We had to listen to the requests of the people because we didn't want to turn this into a social or political issue. But it wasn't a good idea financially."
In Afghanistan, social norms do not allow for dating-and sex before marriage is banned by law. "We couldn't really tell whether the men coming to the restaurant were the women's brothers or boyfriends," Ahmadi says.
"We had to listen to the requests of the people because we didn't want to turn this into a social or political issue," she says. "But it wasn't a good idea financially."
Since the decision to exclude unaccompanied men from the clientele was made, the café has had to reduce its staff from fifteen to six, three of whom work at a handicraft shop near the ruins of the Buddha statues.
"Most women in Bamiyan don't make money," Ahmadi says. It was mainly men who were bringing in the much-needed income. The press officer of HELP, Sandra Schiller, believes that the negative impacts are only short-term for the café. "In the long run, everyone is assured that it will gain a good reputation [because] women are going to a safe area run by ladies for women and families," she says.
But Ahmadi is not as optimistic. Soon, she says, it is possible the café might have to close down. "I'm very worried about the future."
But at least today, the café is still filled with smiling and laughing women. And in a country like Afghanistan, that's an achievement.