After fleeing violence in Afghanistan, carpet weaving provides refugee women with a meagre but vital lifeline in Pakistan

After fleeing violence in Afghanistan, carpet weaving provides refugee women with a meagre but vital lifeline in Pakistan

In this photo taken on 16 October 2020, Jumma Gul, right, holds a sickle-like tool while weaving a carpet with her sister-in-law at her home in the Khurasaan refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan.

(Mahwish Qayyum)

The simplicity of Jumma Gul’s surroundings belies the enormity of the journey she has taken to get to where she is today. Sitting crouched at a weaving loom in the ramshackle house made of mud bricks that she shares with her husband and six children in the Khurasan refugee camp in Peshawar, close to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, she recalls her old life. “Living in Afghanistan was like living under the sword of Damocles,” she recalls. Jumma was born just a few years before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979; she survived the brutal, nine-year war that followed and killed over one million of her fellow Afghans; but by 1996, she felt that she had no choice but to leave her home province of Jowzjan to escape life under the Taliban.

“I still have memories of seeing civilians being executed for not following their strict Islamic rules,” says the 45-year-old. The Taliban’s harshest repression was targeted at women and girls, who were not allowed to work or go to school, and were forced to wear a burqa (a full face and body veil) when out in public. “We had to flee our home to save our lives. We travelled to Pakistan on mules, it took us 22 days to reach here. We spent several nights under the open sky and some days we had nothing to eat.”

With around 1.42 million Afghan refugees registered in Pakistan and an estimated 800,000 undocumented Afghans in the country, Pakistan has one of the largest refugee populations in the world, of which almost half (47 per cent) are women and girls. Like many of the refugees that have sought sanctuary in Pakistan, Jumma left everything behind. The only asset that she brought with her was the centuries-old craft of carpet weaving, which today provides a valuable, if insufficient, livelihood for many Afghan women refugees.

Afghan culture typically frowns on women going outside of the home to work, so refugee women started weaving carpets from their homes in the camps. It was a craft that was not practiced in this part of Pakistan before the refugees arrived, and it is through this work that thousands of women have found an outlet to try and manage the PTSD they suffer as a result of prolonged war and violence in Afghanistan.

Jumma has been weaving carpets at home for many years. It is not an easy life but it allows her to supplement her husband’s inconsistent income as a labourer to help provide for their family. They do not earn enough money to rent a home outside of the camp, however, and with no clear path to Pakistani citizenship, the Guls are not allowed to build a home or obtain national identity cards (although Afghan refugees recently begun to receive biometric ID cards) which is why after 25 years in Pakistan they are still living in the camp.

“I toil from dawn to dusk and earn 8000 rupees (€42) per month which I share with two other artisans,” she says.

Jumma works with up to three women on the same carpet; the carpets are then sold by a middleman for Rs25,000 (€135) or more, depending on the size. Occasionally, Jumma’s husband attempts to sell the carpets himself, wandering the streets of Peshawar with his wife’s handmade wares on his shoulders in an attempt to attract a buyer.

Afghanistan’s hand-woven carpets are made by various ethnic groups, but the rugs woven by ethnic Turkmen, like Jumma, are highly sought after because of their unique designs and high-quality crafts(wo)manship. Carpet weavers tend to work by piece rates either at home or in small units which are informal and unregistered. The wages are generally very low and the weavers work for 6-8 hours a day, six days a week.

Like Jumma, Bibi Zulaikha is an ethnic Turkmen Afghan refugee living and working as a carpet weaver in the Khurasan refugee camp, which is home to more than 3,000 Afghan refugees. For this mother of nine, who has been living in Pakistan since 1983, working has helped to improve her family’s economic situation, as well as her own confidence. “Earning an income from home has not only made me economically independent but it has also allowed me to live a dignified life in my host country,” she says, referring to the fact that she is no longer completely dependent on aid agencies for her survival. “I earn Rs1500 (€7.90) per square metre but it takes months to produce a single carpet. A small carpet takes two months for which I get Rs5000 (€26) and for large carpet I get Rs10000 (€53).” The women are only paid once a carpet has been completed.

Pandemic and penury

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a terrible impact on home-based workers like Jumma and Bibi who have seen their orders for carpets fall through the floor. With no work, the weavers don’t earn any money; without money, they cannot afford to feed their families. “Before Covid, I had enough orders but now I hardly make ends meet,” says Jumma. “I am scared that if things don’t change soon my family will be further pushed into poverty and it will be difficult for me to put food on the table for my children.”

In an April 2020 policy brief titled The Impact of COVID-19 on Women the UN warned of the disproportionate economic impact of the pandemic on women around the world as a result of women earning less and being overrepresented in insecure, informal work. The situation is far worse in developing economies like Pakistan where the vast majority of women’s employment – 71.8 per cent – is in the informal economy with few protections against job losses, no redundancy, sickness, maternity or holiday paid leave, and limited access to social protection.

Ume Laila Azhar is the executive director of HomeNet Pakistan, a network of organisations formed to advocate for better working conditions for Pakistan’s informal home-based workers. She says that even before the coronavirus, carpet weavers endured inadequate pay and poor working conditions. “Afghan carpet weavers receive a meagre income for their work but they have no other options.”

Azhar gives the example of some carpet weavers, mostly Afghans from the Hazara community, working in the northern Pakistan city of Quetta who haven’t received their wages for nearly six months. “The supervisors are delaying the payment of wages and there is no-one that these women can report them to.”

As nearly all carpet weavers either have informal or verbal work contracts, “there is no complaint mechanism or any union working for their rights.” The unions that do exist in the industry do not cover precarious, informal workers, “and so their complaints go unheard.”

Azhar also notes that carpet weaving is a hazardous occupation due to the health risks associated with it. “As well as excessive working hours and poor working conditions, carpet weavers are also exposed to respiratory diseases [due to inhaling fabric fibres], impaired vision and back problems due to sitting in an awkward position for a long time.” The continuous weaving and knotting using poorly designed hand tools also results in swollen finger joints and other musculoskeletal issues.

Azhar says more support needs to be given to carpet weavers – and the organisations that advocate for them. “Women rights organisations have come forward to support the women but they too need continuous support.” Additionally, she notes, many of the NGOs that work directly with Afghan refugees focus on livelihoods rather than rights. However, Qaiser Khan Afridi, a spokesperson for UNHCR Pakistan says that both elements are important: “UNHCR is committed to ensuring that women are able to make a safe and sustainable living that meets their basic needs and contributes to their dignity.”

He says that the agency has provided certified vocational training to thousands of refugee women over the past four decades, adding that between 2016 and 2020, UNHCR Pakistan trained over 4,000 female refugees in carpet weaving, tailoring, kilim making, jewellery making, embroidery and other skills. “Through these projects, these women not only achieve self-reliance in Pakistan but they also improve their future economic prospects upon return to Afghanistan,” Afridi says.
Jumma agrees. “My children used to cry of hunger because I had no food for them. Now I am able to play my part in uplifting the standard of living of my family,” she says proudly. “Women can prove their mettle if adequate opportunities and resources are provided to them.”