Afghan saffron boss says war will not silence her

An Afghan business leader who employs hundreds of women on her saffron fields has vowed to speak up for the rights of her workers and “not remain silent” under Taliban rule. The hard-liners have increasingly excluded women from public life since sweeping to power in mid-August, pushing many female entrepreneurs to flee the country or go into hiding.

“We will raise our voice so that it reaches their ears,” said Shafiqeh Attai, who started her saffron company in the western city of Herat in 2007. “No matter what happens, we won’t just sit at home because we have worked very hard.”

Attai’s business, the Pashton Zarghon Saffron Women’s Company, produces, processes, packages, and exports the world’s most expensive spice with an almost exclusively female workforce. More than 1,000 women pick the brightly colored crocuses across the company’s 25 hectares (60 acres) of land in the Pashton Zarghon district of Herat Province, which borders Iran.

Another 55 hectares are independently owned and operate under the collective that Attai set up for women saffron pickers, who are represented by union leaders. Employing women allows them to be breadwinners for their families, Attai said, enabling them to send their children to school, and to buy them clothing and other essentials.
“I worked hard to establish my business,” the 40-year-old said. “We don’t want to sit quietly and be ignored. Even if they ignore us, we will not remain silent.”

Herat Province produces the vast majority of Afghanistan’s saffron.
At more than $5,000 per kilogram, saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, and Attai’s company produces between 200 and 500 kilos each year. Best grown in the baking hot sun, the bright purple saffron flowers are harvested in October and November by armies of workers, many of them women in their fifties and sixties, who start picking at dawn before the plants wilt later in the day. Laborers then prise apart the delicate lilac leaves, vivid red stigmas, and pale yellow stamens — painstaking work that demands concentration and skill.

“I’m not just thinking about myself, I’m thinking about all those that this business supports to run their homes,” she said, noting that some of her employees are the sole breadwinners in their families. “I am worried that 20 years of hard work by these women will go to waste.”

“We are a company which is completely run by women and employs women — not a single man is brave enough to stop that. A woman who has shoveled her fields day and night cannot be ignored.”

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