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.
Kim Bode is the community editor of Syria Deeply and Refugees Deeply, working at the intersection of strategy, editorial and product. Born and raised in Berlin, Germany, she was previously a Wall Street correspondent for the Financial Times Deutschland, Die Zeit, NZZ am Sonntag and der Freitag. She is on Twitter @kim_bode.