A Silky Tale

The women of Afghanistan are play­ing an im­por­tant role in re­viv­ing the coun­try’s an­cient silk in­dus­try.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Mahrukh Fa­rooq The writer is an as­sis­tant edi­tor at Slo­gan and has an in­ter­est in ad­ver­tis­ing, me­dia and public re­la­tions.

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.

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