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.”

Afghanistan says Pakistan scholarship scheme will have 'positive' impact on bilateral ties

Updated 8 min 3 sec ago

Afghanistan says Pakistan scholarship scheme will have 'positive' impact on bilateral ties

  • Over 16,000 Afghan students have applied for the Allama Muhammad Iqbal Scholarship which offers grants to 800 undergraduate, 150 Masters and 50 PhD students this year
  • Afghanistan’s special envoy for Pakistan urges Pakistan government to increase the number of scholarships in medicine and engineering

PESHAWAR: Mohammed Umer Daudzai, Afghanistan’s special envoy for Pakistan, on Monday lauded a Pakistani scholarship for Afghan nationals, saying it would have a ‘positive impact’ on the bilateral relationship and on the lives of the people of Afghanistan.

According to Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC), over 16,000 Afghan students have applied for the Allama Muhammad Iqbal Scholarships in Pakistan, which offers 800 undergraduate, 150 Masters and 50 PhD grants.

The programme was launched in 2009, and 5,000 Afghans have so far benefited from it, gaining degrees in various fields including medicine and engineering. At least 100 seats are reserved for female students as part of the scholarship each year.

“The 800 scholarship this year that Pakistan has offered to Afghanistan is very important; it will have a very positive impact on bilateral relationships,” Daudzai told Arab News on Monday. “It will have a great impact on the life of people of Afghanistan because ... a significant number of these scholarships are in medicine and engineering which is very important for us.”

He added: “The Pakistani scholarship for Afghans is cheapest and most feasible because of the two countries' proximity. Afghan students can travel to their home country easily without involving huge expenses.” 

He also urged the Pakistan government to increase the number of scholarships in medicine and engineering.

“We noticed that a significant number of the youths that participated in this year's scholarship are Afghan girls, which is important,” Daudzai said. “It’s indicative of the trust that families in Afghanistan have to send their daughters to Pakistan."

Afghan students attend a pre-orientation session at the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on October 24, 2020 for the fully-funded Allama Muhammad Iqbal Scholarship program for academic year 2020-21. (Photo courtesy: Pakistan Embassy Kabul)

Pakistan’s Foreign Office Spokesperson Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri said the fully-funded Allama Muhammad Iqbal Scholarship Programme for Afghan Nationals was a “valuable” contribution to develop Afghanistan’s human resource sector.

“Pakistan has already contributed in the neighboring country’s development. And this (scholarship) programme will help develop Afghanistan’s human resource sector,” Chaudhri added.

Last week at the pre-orientation programme organized in honor of Afghan students at the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul, Pakistan’s Ambassador to Afghanistan Mansoor Ahmad Khan said more than 50,000 Afghans educated in Pakistan were now serving Afghanistan’s public and private sectors.

Farzana Sharifi, an Afghan female student at COMSATS University Abbottabad, told Arab News that many Afghan students were keen to study at Pakistani educational institutions because of the quality of the universities and low costs.

However, she said Pakistani institutions needed to start orientation classes to prepare Afghans better to speak and understand Urdu and English.

“Special orientation classes need to be arranged for newcomers so they become familiar with the language of the medium of the particular university,” Sharifi said. “In addition, our students should be given special incentives while crossing the border or traveling in Pakistan.”

Ahmad Milad Azizi, a networking officer at the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology in Kabul who graduated with bachelors degree in computer science from a Pakistani university in 2015, said the scholarship programme for Afghan students was also a great opportunity for Afghans to learn about Pakistani culture.

“Islamabad needs to explore measures to ease students’ travel from and to Pakistan,” he added. “I suggest the government of Pakistan increase the number of scholarships because our country direly needs qualified manpower and professionals.”