The menu at Bost restaurant in Kabul is extensive: There’s the Afghan national dish, kabuli palaw, but also pizza and chicken jalfrezi. Located within walking distance of the diplomatic district, Bost is vulnerable to suicide attacks by the Taliban, but that doesn’t deter the chefs and waitresses laughing inside. The restaurant is the only one in Afghanistan run entirely by women.
One of the chefs is 19-year-old Mursal. At 16, she was forced to marry her cousin, whom she describes as being “mentally and psychologically sick.”
After her wedding, Mursal moved into the house her cousin shared with his father, her uncle, in Baglhan province. That’s when the beatings began. “I couldn’t accept it,” she said. She fled, traveling more than 125 miles (200 km) by road to a shelter she’d heard about in the capital.
The Afghan Women Skills Development Centre (AWSDC) is one of the only safe places for women fleeing domestic violence in Afghanistan. “These women cannot return to their families,” said Mary Akrami, who set up the shelter in 2002. “They have nowhere else to go.”
Akrami says AWSDC has provided housing for around 4,500 abused women. She realized that while the four shelters in Kabul might provide the women with reprieve from violence, it was not enough.
“We were always asking ourselves: How long should the women be in the safe house? But there was no alternative for them,” Akrami said. “If they are not in the safe house, where will they go?”
Many of the women arrive having never been to school. Instead, they have spent the majority of their lives housebound and cooked for their families.
The seed of the idea for Bost came with 39-year-old Safiqa, a resident of the shelter. Safiqa had been subjected to regular beatings from her in-laws. After arriving at the shelter, she soon started cooking for Akrami’s friends, and charging for it. This way, she was able to save up enough money to rent her own home.
“Safiqa told me that she had never had the chance to [hold money in her hand] until she earned money from catering,” Akrami said. “She ended up being able to save up 100,000 Afghanis ($1,467).”
Safiqa’s success in the shelter was the first indicator that this could be a way to help other women fleeing their homes.
“Women never get a chance to go to a restaurant because they are run by men … it is difficult for women even if they do go because they have to remain covered, since they are being served by men,” Akrami said.
Akrami spent a year renovating a building that she owned in Kabul. While the restaurant was being constructed, the women at the shelter were given intense training, being taught how to cook professionally by chef Saeed Muzafar.
Bost opened last year and is currently staffed by 22 women, all of whom are survivors of physical violence.
Ghezal was 19 when her parents died. She was taken in by an uncle who forced her into prostitution.
The police found Ghezal living on the streets and when she refused to go back to her uncle’s home, she was taken to an AWSDC shelter. Ghezal now works at Bost six days a week as a waitress, but her favorite role is greeting guests.
When Ghezal is not working at Bost, she attends English classes. “I want to become an English translator,” she said.
Keeping the women safe is a constant worry for Akrami. She understands that the women, who came to her after escaping physical violence by male family members, may have difficulty serving male patrons at the restaurant. Because of that, most men are not welcome at Bost. “We only allow men we know, men who are friends and who we know are nice,” she said.
And then there is the threat of violence in a country still wracked by instability. The Taliban does not believe that women should have the right to work.
“Security is a big concern for everyone in Afghanistan,” she said. “Yesterday there was a suicide bombing right near the restaurant and I was so worried, but for now we thank God that everything is going well and we are safe.”
For Wachma, who works at the restaurant, life has never been so safe. She hopes her days of being abused by the police while living on the streets are finally over. “I had no hope,” she said. Now she dreams of moving to America and becoming a famous cook. “I survived, and [now] I can think about my future.”