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.”


Peshawar to resume BRT service after getting clearance from Chinese experts

Updated 19 September 2020

Peshawar to resume BRT service after getting clearance from Chinese experts

  • PM Khan described the Bus Rapid Transit as ‘the best metro bus service available in Pakistan’ while inaugurating it in August
  • The facility was suspended within a few weeks after several buses caught fire while they were carrying passengers

PESHAWAR: A team of technical experts of a Chinese bus manufacturing company has arrived in the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to inspect the vehicles used by the city’s metro bus service after some of them caught fire recently, making commuters wonder if it was safe to travel on them.
Nearly a month after its inauguration, the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service was indefinitely suspended on Wednesday after two more buses caught fire in the upscale Hayatabad locality of Peshawar.
According to the Rescue 1122 emergency service, there were no casualties and the fire that erupted in the air conditioning compartment was immediately extinguished.
“Yes, it was the fourth unfortunate incident in which two buses caught fire … Now a 20-member expert team of the bus manufacturing company has arrived from China to inspect our entire fleet and identify the causes of such incidents,” Muhammad Umair Khan, focal person for the BRT facility, told Arab News while declining to name the Chinese bus manufacturer.

In this undated photo, a metro bus can be seen in an upscale Peshawar neighborhood. The BRT facility was inaugurated by Prime Minister Imran Khan last month who called it "the best metro bus service available in Pakistan." (Picture courtesy: TransPeshawar)

Launched in October 2017 at an estimated cost of Rs49 billion, the 27-kilometer-long BRT corridor had to be completed within a span of six months. However, the project got delayed and missed at least four deadlines in 2018 and 2019.
The long-awaited service was inaugurated by Prime Minister Imran Khan in the second week of August who called it “the best metro bus service available in Pakistan.”
The provincial adviser on local government, Kamran Bangash, told Arab News that the BRT service was suspended on the recommendation of Chinese experts.
“The manufacturers of these buses have assured us that the service will be restored at the earliest. However, we cannot give any timeline and we will not take any risk until we get clearance from the experts,” he added.

Noorshad Wazir, a student at the University of Peshawar, told Arab News that the suspension of the service was creating problems for commuters, though he added that people were also scared to travel on theses buses.
Video footage of the latest fire incident was widely shared on social media, showing thick black smoke coming out of the bus last Wednesday.
Shortly thereafter, TransPeshawar, the company that operates the service, announced its suspension in “the best public interest” to ensure passenger safety.
Muhammad Nouman, who works as a laboratory technician in the city and frequently used the facility after its inauguration, said that the BRT was “mired in controversies such as poor management” from the outset.
“It saved many people from traffic congestion,” he said. “But now I seriously wonder if the project has provided us relief or compounded our troubles. I am also not sure if it will be safe for us to travel on these buses in the future.”
TransPeshawar has already acquired a fleet of 220 hybrid air-conditioned buses to cover the BRT corridor in the city.
“We will make sure to prevent such incidents in the future,” said the BRT focal person. “We will only resume the service after thoroughly checking all the buses and rectifying the problem.”