Like many people around the world, Tahmina Ghaffer was inseparable from her phone on August 15. Ghaffer, a Kabul native who recently founded a saffron importing business in D.C., was following journalists in Afghanistan on social media to get live updates on the Taliban’s surprising seizure of the capital city. “It was a very dark day. It felt like we lost all hope,” Ghaffer says. “We felt like all the people in Afghanistan are now going to suffer, so it was very painful.”
Tracking the chaotic scenes of desperation on the streets and at the airport made Ghaffer relive the trauma of her own hectic exit from the country in the 1990s. But because she works with restaurants her uncle Sam Shoja owns in D.C. and Virginia, Ghaffer quickly focused on how she could help a wave of evacuees that have since arrived in the area through Dulles International Airport.
Ghaffer and her family connected with World Central Kitchen to provide three meals a day to refugees, and fast-casual kebab shop Sheesh Grill began training a few evacuees to work in its restaurants. Meanwhile, Ghaffer is uncertain of what will happen to Moonflowers, the saffron business she started earlier this year to support a community of largely female farmers based in the Herat region of Afghanistan. Sheesh Grill gets saffron from Moonflowers that gives basmati rice and soft serve a striking gold color.
Now that the Taliban is in power, human rights advocates worry the new government will bring back the extreme repression it imposed in the ’90s that restricted women from working, attending school, or leaving the house without a burqa. The Taliban is pledging to install a more moderate regime than its previous iteration, even encouraging female civil servants to return to work. But at the beginning of the transition, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid announced women should stay home from work because the force’s fighters weren’t trained to respect them.
“That’s been devastating, knowing that female farmers and laborers can’t come back in the fields and do the work they’ve been doing with pride for years,” Ghaffer says. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. Saffron harvest is going to happen soon in Afghanistan, but the people there are living with a lack of clarity.”
Harvesting saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, is an extremely labor-intensive process. Farmers must work in the fields before dawn to hand-pick the purple crocus flowers before the sun can damage their fragile blooms. Ghaffer picked the name Moonflowers as an homage to that predawn process. Each stigma — the pollen-germinating piece, of which there are three per plant — must be removed by hand, one at a time. Each flower lives for a short 48 hours, so the harvesting period is brief and urgent. It takes upward of 70,000 flowers to yield just one pound of the spice, which can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 on the retail market.
Assessing the quality of saffron is all about using the senses; the color and overall appearance, aroma, and flavor are all factors. Two types of saffron stigmas — super negin and sargol — can produce premium saffron. Super negin stigmas are longer in length and lack yellow ends or crumbs. Over the past few years, Afghan saffron has been ranked the best in the world by the International Taste and Quality Institute in Brussels.
In Afghanistan, though the farms are family-owned, women reportedly perform 80 percent of the processing, including caring for the flowers and harvesting saffron. “Buying saffron from Afghanistan empowers the women there,” Ghaffer says. “It’s very rare for women in rural areas to have access to the labor market to make their own income.”
Ghaffer founded Moonflowers from her D.C. apartment in June. Although a Taliban offensive began a month earlier, Ghaffer says at that time she couldn’t have anticipated a total takeover. “Most areas in Northern and Western Afghanistan have never been conquered or under Taliban control,” she says. “Saffron grows in the province of Herat which is in the west of Afghanistan. The people in these areas have a different culture, language, and beliefs. It was unthinkable for many people that this would become a reality.”
Ghaffer’s journey from Kabul to D.C. started in the early 1990s, when clashes between Islamic guerilla fighters known as the Mujahideen and other rebel groups that helped oust Soviet occupiers turned the once-vibrant city into a ghost town. Rocketing and shelling claimed thousands of civilian lives. When Ghaffer was 5 years old, her family fled, traveling through central Asia until they arrived in Moscow. They eventually emigrated to Rotterdam, Netherlands, where Ghaffer would spend the remainder of her childhood and go on to study at Erasmus School of Law.
After a few years of practicing international public law in the Netherlands, Ghaffer says, she felt called to a more creative career. In 2019, Ghaffer, then 29, decided to settle in D.C., where she worked as a creative director in her uncle’s restaurant group while figuring out her next move.
Ghaffer had begun noticing articles about farmers in Afghanistan growing premium saffron, and her curiosity was piqued. “In addition to it being an excellent product for export for Afghanistan, it’s become a movement against opium,” she says. “It’s as lucrative to grow as opium, but most farmers are motivated to grow saffron because it’s a better product. They feel better about it.”
Calling on connections back in Afghanistan, Ghaffer forged relationships with two farming families in the eastern part of the country who negotiated pricing and shipping terms prior to the October 2020 harvest. Moonflowers was born.
But after the U.S. withdrawal and rapid collapse of the previous national government, women who are critical to the harvest face uncertain working conditions. Following the transition, women in Kabul protesting for equal rights have reported being beaten with whips and shocked with electric batons. As of late September, Ghaffer says the female farmers that typically do the work are scared to return to the fields. For this season at least, male laborers will harvest the delicate spice.
Ghaffer says one of the farmers she worked with was evacuated and has relocated to Northern Virginia. “It’s been terrifying for her,” Ghaffer says. “These women had hopes and dreams and [careers]. They all left that there. This is a one-way ticket. There’s no way you can go back under these circumstances.”
Despite the current conditions, Ghaffer says she’s confident that Moonflowers will continue its mission, which is more pressing now than ever before. “There is a lot of resistance from people against the current state of oppression by the Taliban and I don’t think this control will last,” says Ghaffer. “I have hope that the international community will step in to end this oppression in support of human rights and women’s rights. Right now the people of Afghanistan need our support more than ever, and we will not abandon them.”
Ghaffer notes that Moonflowers has enough product to last through spring of 2022, adding, “I’m very confident that Moonflowers will survive this. We have strong operations, contacts, sourcing options, saffron supply, and commitment to continue the work we do to help Afghan women and share this precious spice and the story behind it.”
Previously, Moonflowers had committed to empowering Afghan youth by donating 1 percent of profits to Skateistan, an international nonprofit that combines skateboarding and arts-based education for children, especially underserved groups like girls, children with disabilities, and children from low-income backgrounds. In light of the current situation, Moonflowers will also donate to the International Rescue Committee.
“If Afghanistan is not free, that endangers the freedom of the world,” Ghaffer says. “We’re an international community, and if one country is in danger, everyone is in danger, because it’s not going to stop there.”