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)
Short Url
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.”


Pakistan’s new 'political map' projects decades-old position on Kashmir, experts say

Updated 47 min 27 sec ago

Pakistan’s new 'political map' projects decades-old position on Kashmir, experts say

  • Maps are not without significance in international law and global litigation over territorial disputes, top legal expert says
  • Opposition urges government to circulate map among all embassies and international forums to convey official position on disputed territory

ISLAMABAD: The government of Pakistan has exercised its executive authority by formally laying claim to the disputed Himalayan territory of Jammu and Kashmir in a new political map, experts said on Wednesday, adding that the move was in line with the country’s decades-old position on Kashmir since it had always maintained that the region was illegally occupied by India.
Prime Minister Imran Khan unveiled Pakistan’s new map on Tuesday, showing the entire area of Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan as its territory. The decision was made in response to a similar step taken by India which released its own political map in October last year depicting Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, both territories governed by Pakistan, as being part of India.
The Muslim majority Himalayan valley of Kashmir remains disputed between the two South Asian neighbors since 1947. Both claim it in full but rule only parts of it. Both countries have also fought at least two full-scale wars over the territory, making the world community describe the region as a potential nuclear flashpoint.
Last year, India revoked the special status of the disputed Himalayan region’s autonomy.
“By issuing this map, Pakistan has exercised its executive authority to document its position regarding its territorial dispute with India,” Ahmer Bilal Soofi, a top Pakistani expert of international law, told Arab News.
He said that Pakistan’s action was well within the framework of international law and in keeping with the relevant United Nations resolutions promising plebiscite in the region.
“Pakistan has also reiterated its stance [through the map] that India’s illegal annexation of occupied Kashmir through last year’s presidential decree is not recognized by it,” he said, adding that territorial claims over disputed regions could be exercised through legislation, executive action and judicial pronouncements.
“Pakistan’s decision to use the executive authority in this case may also be followed by its legislative action,” he said.
Soofi said the new map would help Pakistan contest its case over Kashmir at international forums, including the UN.
“Maps are not without sanctity and significance in international law and global litigation over territorial disputes,” he said.
Pakistan’s foreign office said the new map was “essential for firmly rejecting the political map issued by India” last year, adding that New Delhi had made “false territorial claims on Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.”
“The political map emphatically reasserts Pakistan’s stated position [on Kashmir],” Aisha Farooqui, the foreign office spokesperson, told Arab News.
“Pakistan’s consistent stance on Jammu and Kashmir, anchored in the United Nations Security Council resolutions stipulating that the accession of the state will be through a UN-supervised plebiscite, is further reinforced as the map reaffirms this position,” she said.
The country’s largest opposition party in parliament, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), also endorsed the new map while urging the government to utilize all international avenues to get the dispute resolved peacefully.
“The government should clarify if it will be using the same map at international forums like the UN, or is it just for domestic consumption,” Muhammad Zubair, former governor of Sindh province and a senior PML-N leader, told Arab News.
He said that Pakistan should circulate the new map among all the embassies and international forums to tell the world about its position on the disputed territory. “The new map will be useless if it is only for optics,” Zubair said. “Let’s see how the government proceeds ahead with it.”
Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal, an Islamabad-based academic and expert in international relations, termed Pakistan’s decision to unveil the new map a “wise move.”
“This is a complete map of Pakistan showing our rightful claim over the disputed Kashmir region,” he said, “though it only seems to be for domestic consumption at the moment.”