A Silky Tale
The women of Afghanistan are playing an important role in reviving the country’s ancient silk industry.
The country’s silk industry can help put it back on the trade map.
During most of the decade of 2000, Afghanistan was at the centre of political strife, including a complete breakdown of law and order and a severe lack of foreign investment which ultimately caused the country’s economy to suffer drastically. With an intensified Taliban insurgency, regular skirmishes along the Pak-Afghan border and the recent threat of ISIS, Afghanistan has been in state of constant turmoil and has, only now, begun to take small steps towards normalcy. Now that the U.S war in Afghanistan, perhaps the longest war in American history, has ended, the country is now being led by a new government under President Ashraf Ghani. It seems the country can now focus on issues related to its development, particularly those concerning the economy. The revival of the economy depends greatly on the performance of the country’s
manufacturing, agricultural and services sectors, including many of its major industries. One of these industries is the ancient silk industry. A once flourishing trade, it has been reduced to ruins due to the ineffective m management of resources and cheaper, foreign imports that have threatened the very livelihood of Afghanistan’s silkworm farmers. Currently, the silk industry is limping back to life, thanks to valuable contributions by some unlikely heroes - the Afghan women.
An industry that dates back thousands of years, Afghanistan’s silk craft first originated in a town called Zinda Jan in the Herat Province. A place rich with mulberry trees and home to a thriving population of silkworms, Zinda Jan was once at the heart of the Silk Road trade route, a varied network of trading posts that link Asia with the Mediterranean Basin. Following the Afghan-Russian war of 1979, many supply routes facilitating the silk trade, including the Silk Road, were cut off, thus greatly affecting the development of the industry. Growth was further hampered by the Taliban who prohibited Afghan women from working. As a result, the silk industry experienced a massive decline while numerous families living in the region were robbed of their livelihoods.
In addition to the obvious threat of the Taliban, the entry of cheaper, foreign imports, such as synthetic silk, led to further deterioration of the sector. Synthetic silk began to be used for the manufacturing of silkrelated products, such as carpets, Afghanistan’s top export that at one time employed nearly a fifth of the country’s population. Synthetic silk is a much cheaper form of silk as compared to genuine silk; a scarf made of pure, genuine silk may cost up to 400 Afghanis ($7) whereas a synthetic version imported from Pakistan or China would cost only 150 Afghanis ($2.60). This is because one kilogram of pure silk costs more than 3,000 Afghanis ($52) while synthetic Pakistani silk costs only 420 Afghanis ($7.3) for a kilogram. Hence, it became the only source of raw material for Afghanistan’s dwindling silk industry. As the material was extremely cheap to produce and buy, its quality was also found to be substandard, resulting in average quality products.
After extensive losses suffered over the past few years, it now seems like Afghanistan’s silk industry as well as the families involved in the sector are finally getting their due. The Department of Agriculture, as part of its mission to revive the country’s once profitable silk industry and give the families involved a chance to earn a sustainable living, has provided 5,050 silkworm boxes to Afghan women residing in several districts in the Herat province in order to bring silk production in the area back to life. Currently, over 42,000 women along with their families are involved in the project and are already on their way to creating a means of subsistence as well as ensuring global market access for many silk producers in the country.
In addition to this initiative, USAID is another organization that is determined to assist the families living in the Sari Pul province, another region in Afghanistan where quality silk for the purpose of export is produced. USAID helped construct the Mazar Sericulture Department office along with other silkworm raising facilities. Training programs were conducted on proper silkworm growing methods that involved women from six nearby villages.
Christian Aid along with the Rehabilitation Association and Agricultural Development for Afghanistan (RAADA) has helped numerous women earn a sizeable income by cultivating silkworms in their own homes. ‘A woman can make $140 twice a year from taking part in this process, which is a significant amount in Afghanistan,’ says Engg. Yaqoob Rauf, Christian Aid’s Senior Programme Officer. ‘Silk is expensive and they are able to sell the cocoons in the market. The women are happy as they are able to look after the worms when their husbands are busy with the animals.’
Currently, the Afghanistan silk industry employs nearly 3,000 women directly in every phase of production, from raising silkworms to the manufacturing of some of Afghanistan’s most in-demand products such as scarves, clothes and carpets. Women in Afghanistan’s Balkh, Faryab, Samangan and Jawzjan areas are running full-fledged silk production companies, all of which are making massive contributions towards the revival of the country’s silk industry. With projects such as these, Afghanistan aims to become the regional leader in silk production in the coming few years.
Given the right amount of resources and training, Afghanistan’s silk industry can help put the country back on the map and give it the boost it needs to completely leave behind its war-torn past. Afghani carpets continue to remain the country’s top export; with a thriving silk production industry, the country will be able to drive out the existence of synthetic silk, thus ensuring the production of high quality, genuine silk related products that would fetch competitive prices in the international market. If the Afghan government steps in and supports the silkworm farmers and weavers, the industry could favourably compete with its synthetic opposite.