Afghan women spin new careers by reviving ancient Silk Road crafts

In this picture taken on June 2, 2014, Afghan shoppers examine a silk cloth to buy in a women's business center in Herat. Once a stop along the Silk Road trade route, western Afghanistan has a long tradition of producing silk, a process that dates back thousands of years. (AFP)
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Updated 09 July 2020

Afghan women spin new careers by reviving ancient Silk Road crafts

  • Silk-weaving is a millennia-old tradition in Afghanistan
  • Only 20 percent of Afghan women work, according to World Bank data

HERAT: Once an important Silk Road trading hub, the Afghan city of Herat has long been a cultural center, but decades of war have ravaged its ancient traditional crafts.
Now thousands of women are returning to the ancient practices, seeking to revive the traditions of a city where traders once came to haggle for silk in thick-walled houses and dome-shaped bazaars offering respite from hot summers.
On the outskirts of the ancient city, about 4,000 women work to cultivate silk, from raising silkworms, feeding them and harvesting their cocoons to spinning the yarn by hand — a month-long, labor-intensive process.
Mariam Sheikh, 30, was given a box of 20,000 silkworm eggs by a local aid group last year and has already produced about 40 kilograms of silk, which sells at 300 Afghani ($4) per kilogram.
“My great-grandfather was a silk maker, so there is pride in picking up his work again,” Sheik, who lives in Herat’s Zinda Jan district, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Her small village is surrounded by lush, green mulberry trees, planted years ago to feed the growing silkworms.
“Our community respects and encourages the silk trade and besides that, it has helped me gain financial independence,” she added.
Once the cocoons are dried, the processing into yarn is traditionally done by hand, although the women hope to import a machine to help speed up the process.
At the moment there is only one old spinning machine in Herat city, with not enough capacity to process them all.
Women have made huge strides in the conservative country since the Taliban rule of 1996 to 2001, when they were banned from attending school or work and could not even go outside without a male relative.
Growing numbers of women now complete education and work in previously male bastions, but they still face hurdles.
Four decades of war, from occupation to internal fighting, have destroyed the economy, rendering it among the poorest in the world, with few jobs — especially for young women, who occupy a particularly precarious place.
Many face cultural barriers and hostility not just from conservative family members, but also hard-line Islamist groups, for pursuing financial independence and greater equality.
According to World Bank data, just over 20 percent of Afghan women work, up from about 15 percent in 2001, when the Taliban fell.
There are fears that a final withdrawal of US troops, the winding down of international engagement and the re-emergence of the Taliban may reverse gains.
“Herat is a traditional province where few women are seen — or even allowed by their families — to work outside,” said Mariam Zemoni, one of about 30 women who weave the silk into scarves and fabric.
“That’s another reason why weaving silk is perfect for me,” said the 23-year-old, who makes at least two scarves a day, selling them for 250 Afghani each.
Nazir Ahmad Ghafoori, head of the Rehabilitation Association and Agriculture Development for Afghanistan which has supported the women, said 70 percent of the cocoons were sold to Iran and Pakistan because of a lack of processing capacity.
He hopes to involve more women in Afghanistan’s silk production, expanding to provinces beyond Herat.
“The tradition is thousands of years old, and we Afghans find pride in our art and culture — and the revival of it,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation
Since working with the women in Zinda Jan, his organization has set up the ethical fashion initiative, aiming to export silk produced under fair working conditions worldwide.
An executive board of 50 women in the district oversees and reports on each woman’s working condition.
Sheik, who is on the board, said the business had boosted the economy throughout the district.
Whatever silk is not exported or sold in other parts of Afghanistan makes it to Herat’s old silk bazaar, where vendors sit in small shops with high ceilings decorated with carved ornaments reminiscent of the Silk Road era.
“For the past years, our country has been known for war,” said Sheik. “It’s time the world knew Afghanistan for its arts and crafts, its culture, people — and its silk.”


Political parties, army chief agree military ‘intervenes’ in politics but only at government’s request — opposition 

Updated 23 September 2020

Political parties, army chief agree military ‘intervenes’ in politics but only at government’s request — opposition 

  • Opposition politicians confirm discussing army’s ‘interference’ in politics with army chief at meeting last week
  • Army intervenes because “civilians provided the military this space, sought the army’s help,” PMLN’s Khawaja Asif says 

ISLAMABAD: Opposition politicians have said this week that they discussed the issue of the all-powerful military’s interference in Pakistani politics at a meeting with the army chief last week where General Qamar Javed Bajwa and all parliamentary parties agreed that the army had intervened in the past but only when requested by civilian governments. 
The September 16 meeting with Bajwa has generated much controversy in Pakistan and was attended by at least 15 opposition leaders, including Shehbaz Sharif, Khawaja Asif and Ahsan Iqbal from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Sherry Rehman from the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Jamaat-i-Islami chief Sirajul Haq, the Aawami National Party’s Amir Haider Hoti, and others. The head of Pakistan’s military-run ISI spy agency was also present at the meeting.
Pakistan’s powerful military has ruled the country for more than half of its history, and sets defence and security policy. It has in the past denied meddling in politics.
During the current army chief’s tenure, the military has been accused by opposition politicians of electoral manipulation, meddling in politics, suspension of civil liberties and muzzling the media. The military has denied all counts.
But at the meeting last week, Bajwa admitted that the army had meddled in politics, but only at the behest of civilian politicians and governments, at least three opposition politicians interviewed by Arab News said. 

The army's media wing did not respond to detailed queries from Arab News sent via email.
“The gist of the army chief’s entire conversation was that in Pakistan, historically … whenever the military interfered - he [the army chief] gave his point of view - it happened because civilians provided the military this space, and sought the army’s help against each other,” Khawaja Asif, a senior leader of the PMLN and a former defence minister, said in a TV interview. 
“There was consensus among all people [at the meeting] that politicians ceded territory [to the army], themselves invited the army,” he added.
Asif said the “consensus point of view” at the meeting, which the army chief agreed to and reiterated, was that in Pakistan’s history, “all components of the power structure have committed excesses, which includes politicians, establishment, the army, bureaucracy, courts, media.”
“This is a territorial dispute between different power centers and we should sit down under one roof and resolve it,” the former defence minister said, saying that the solution should be based on rule of law and the constitution. 
“The territorial boundaries, according to the constitution: it is important to determine them,” he said. 
Asif said the September 16 meeting was requested by the military to discuss the issue of the strategic Gilgit-Baltistan region in the northwest corner of disputed Kashmir to China. In recent weeks, government officials have said Pakistan plans to declare the region a fifth province, a proposal which has unnerved neighbouring India with which Pakistan has a territorial dispute over the Kashmir valley. 
Asif said it was PPP senator Sherry Rehman who raised the issue at the meeting that the prime minister should have been present at a huddle at which a “legal and constitutional” issue such as making Gilgit-Baltistan a new province was being discussed. 
“From here, the direction of the meeting, the discussion, changed, and went in the direction of why does the army have to interfere … basically politicians provide this space… the discussion went into this direction,” Asif said. “And the prime minister’s absence became a kind of testimony, that if the prime minister had been here, if prime minister had taken charge of things, then the army chief or the military would not have had to call parliamentary leaders to discuss this but the issue [of Gilgit-Baltistan] would have just been discussed in a committee room in parliament.”
Senator Sherry Rehman confirmed to Arab News that she had raised the issue of the prime minister’s absence at the meeting with the army chief. “Why was this meeting not convened at the PM House,” she said she had asked the meeting’s participants. 
PMLN politician Ahsan Iqbal also said the army chief had called the meeting because the prime minister refused to sit down with the opposition or discuss Gilgit-Baltistan in parliament. 
“The prime minister is continuously refusing to sit with the opposition,” he told Arab News. “How can the system work this way?”
Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, minister for railways, quoted the army chief at the meeting as saying the army was bound to respond “positively” when an elected government requested them for help. 
Senior journalist and head of Hum News, Mohammad Malick, said politicians often “dragged” the military leadership into political issues. 
“Why do politicians go to the military instead of using forums like parliament, media and judiciary?” he asked. “When you will take an issue to a state institution, then the institution will definitely give its viewpoint and suggest a preferred course of action.”
He said parliamentarians should have the courage to take ‘big decisions’ instead of looking towards the military for support. 
“The military does intervene in many areas, but it doesn’t mean that it intervenes in each and every issue,” Malick said. “We can’t blame them for the sins they haven’t committed.”