HERAT -- A female Afghan entrepreneur who has employed hundreds of women in her saffron fields in Herat has vowed to speak up for the rights of her workers and to refrain from silence under Taliban rule.
The Taliban have excluded women from public life since seizing power in August, pushing many female entrepreneurs to flee the country or go into hiding.
Many fear a return of the group's oppressive rule from 1996 to 2001, when women were effectively banned from going to school or work and were allowed to leave the house only if a male relative accompanied them.
Under new Taliban restrictions, girls may attend school only until sixth grade, while women at private universities will be separated from men, and may attend only if they wear an abaya and a niqab. All public universities remain closed.
Taliban officials have ordered working women to stay at home "for their own security" until they can implement segregation under the group's restrictive interpretation of sharia.
In September, the acting mayor of Kabul said any municipal jobs held by women would be filled by men.
"We will raise our voice so that it reaches their ears," said Shafiqeh Attai, 40, who started her saffron company 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 Co., produces, processes, packages and exports the spice with an almost exclusively female workforce.
More than 1,000 women pick crocuses across the company's 25 hectares of land in Herat's Pashtun Zarghun district, which borders Iran.
Another 55 hectares are independently owned and operate under the collective Attai set up for female saffron pickers, who are represented by a union.
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," she said. "We don't want to sit quietly and be ignored. Even if they ignore us, we will not remain silent."
The previous Afghan government encouraged farmers to grow saffron in a bid to wean them away from Afghanistan's huge and problematic poppy industry.
Herat produces the vast majority of Afghanistan's saffron, dubbed "red gold".
At more than $5,000 per kilogramme, it is the world's most expensive spice, and Attai's company produces between 200 and 500kg each year.
The purple saffron flowers are harvested in October and November by armies of workers, many of them women, who start picking the plants at dawn.
Labourers then prise apart the delicate lilac leaves, vivid red stigmas and pale yellow stamens -- painstaking work that demands concentration and skill.
Attai is concerned not just about the future of her business but also for women across Afghanistan who are living in limbo, uncertain about their jobs, education and representation in government.
"They haven't given girls the permission to go back to school and university, and they haven't given any women posts in the government -- I am worried about what will happen," she said.
"I'm not just thinking about myself; I'm thinking about all those that this business supports to run their homes," she added, 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."
'Our work cannot be blocked'
After the Taliban's ouster in 2001, many women became business leaders, particularly in cities like Herat.
Long a key commercial hub near Iran and Turkmenistan's borders, the city has in recent months suffered from the flight of many businesswomen.
The fate of businesses like Attai's hangs by a thread.
Attai said that for now, she is staying in her homeland because she has some hope that her business can survive.
"I could have left as well. But I didn't leave because all the hard work and effort that we put in should not be ignored," Attai said.