12/22/2022, 11.31
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Selene Biffi and the pasta factory that wants to rewrite the history of Afghan women

by Alessandra De Poli

A social entrepreneur who first arrived in the country in 2009, after various experiences in the field of cooperation she now supports a pasta workshop that employs 15 women. While the Taliban impose yet another crackdown on the right to female education, the girls help each other by exploiting the open spaces left by the law.

Milan (AsiaNews) - "The information published abroad on the condition of women in Afghanistan is often very biased. It is not correct to say, for example, that women cannot work at all. They cannot do jobs in contact with the public, except in some special cases,"  Selene Biffi, 40, a social entrepreneur from Mezzago, tells AsiaNews. While the Taliban continue to reduce the spaces of freedom by forbidding girls to go to university (until now access to some degrees had been allowed), there are many initiatives to support women even in such a complicated context.

This is the case of a pasta factory in northern Afghanistan, supported by the She Works for Peace association - founded by Selene at the beginning of the year - and the Girolomoni Cooperative, active in the production of organic food, and a group of other Italian companies.

It all began in a meeting in March this year: Selene, who had also been involved in the evacuation of Afghan citizens in August 2021, had once again returned to the country to distribute the aid collected in Italy after the Taliban reconquest: 'People were happy to receive aid, but they were asking me about the possibility of going back to work." This is how the support network created by Selene became the non-profit She Works for Peace, which aims to support women's micro-entrepreneurship in difficult contexts.

In March, at an event for women entrepreneurs, Selene met Sima, a woman intent on selling scarves and stoles: "Her dream, however, was to reopen her pasta factory, started in 2018 and closed when the Taliban came to power". A year after the fall of Kabul, the pasta factory has come back to life (see photo): initially operating two days a week, it now welcomes female workers five days a week. Most of them are widows or have sick husbands, so they are the only source of livelihood for their families. "When we talk about micro-enterprises," Biffi points out, "we also mean a single woman with a cow at home whose milk she then sells at the market, so in many cases these are survival activities". She Works for Peace has supported over 300 women's micro-enterprises throughout Afghanistan in one year.

The pasta factory is currently located in a house that has been converted into a workshop: while the women take care of the production side - at the beginning there were two, now there are 15 -, two men have been hired to distribute the pasta.

It is difficult to predict which way Afghanistan will turn in the coming months. The Taliban leadership harbours different currents within it, and in the meantime the country, overtaken by more pressing issues such as the war in Ukraine, has fallen into oblivion within the international community. Yet the UN estimates that 28.3 million people - two thirds of the population - will need humanitarian assistance in 2023. About four million women and children suffer from acute malnutrition. Due to the economic crisis and the lack of liquidity, household debts have increased sixfold, and more than 70 per cent of income is now spent on buying food.

But Selene has no intention of giving up, and with her, neither do the Afghan women: "These women and girls are rebuilding the local socio-economic fabric in line with the restrictions imposed by the Taliban," comments the entrepreneur. "They are keeping themselves balanced between the possibilities offered to them and their needs: it is a sign of great strength, it shows that they do not want to give up despite the difficulties".

'What strikes me most,' Biffi continues, 'is the Afghan women's willingness to support each other. They think of women like themselves: they want to teach, create opportunities and new jobs even in such a complex context,' continues Selene, who first arrived in Afghanistan in 2009 and has not left it since: but 'it is the country that chose me,' she specifies. 'I arrived as a volunteer for an international organisation and then returned in 2013'. That year, the former aid worker founded the Qessa Academy (the Academy of Stories) in Kabul, a school for traditional storytellers, an avenue to 'train and inform' unemployed young people aged 18 to 25. "Despite a 20-year presence of the international community in Afghanistan, more than 60 per cent of Afghans are still illiterate."

Hence the decision to use traditional storytelling (rich in folk tales and embellished with Persian epics) to reach out to young people and local communities: "Popular culture went through a slow decline that began with the Soviet occupation in 1979, then with the first Taliban government in the 1990s, the itinerant storytellers risked being stopped," Biffi explains.

"In 2013, the remaining storytellers were all very old, while on the other side there was a very young and almost illiterate population, more than 60 per cent of whom were under 25 years old. Until 2020, the Qessa Academy informed local communities on a variety of topics through the traditional storytelling method, which is "more intimate and easier to accept" for Afghans, including through public events and TV and radio programmes

In the meantime, Sima's pasta factory in northern Afghanistan has also received support from three other Italian companies linked to pasta production (Sima Impianti of Spresiano, Landucci and Ricciarelli of Pistoia) which, together with Girolomoni, will continue to offer resources and technical support. In the end, whether through a pasta factory or a storyteller's academy, Selene Biffi's are all attempts to rewrite the history of a country battered by decades of wars and fanaticism.

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