Driving up into the rugged Darrai Nur you enter the heartland of Afghanistan. Terraced farmland climbs up from the valley floor. The air is still; shepherds nudge their flocks along the roadside, boys hoist enormous baskets of fodder onto their backs, and small children in bright clothing and shimmering amulets teeter on boulders along the road.
The landscape is dotted with high-walled compounds. Inside are the women, the mothers and daughters. Their days begin before dawn, stoking the cooking fires, milking cows, and tending to children. Large kettles of water simmer over dung and wood fueled flames. Guests may appear unannounced and a pot of astringent green tea with cardamom pods will be offered to all.
Inside these homes, two generations of children have been raised through war and conflict in Afghanistan. The country’s surviving picturesque qualities mask thirty years of its people’s physical, psychological, social, and economic damage.
Fingerprints of the Taliban
Afghanistan’s most recent war began not with the U-S invasion in response to the 9/11 attacks, but rather in December 1979 with the Soviet invasion in support of the Marxist government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. In that nine-year conflict, the Islamist Mujahedeen led a vehement resistance to the Communists. The Soviet withdrawal in 1989 led to years of civil war, creating conditions for the Taliban to take control of the country in 1996.
There are no families left untouched by that experience. Few women have gone to school and most remain uneducated, or at best semi-literate. Without running water and electricity, the lives of women and girls are consumed by the basic household chores often taken for granted elsewhere in the world. Homebound by the practice of purdah, a custom of gender segregation common in Afghan communities, women and girls are sequestered from public life. Local hygiene practices and lack of clean water raise the risk of pregnancy-related infections, high infant mortality, and death. Malaria and dysentery continue to plague the population.
Despite these challenges, tangible changes are visible in the construction of roads, schools and water wells -- now beginning to reach rural areas. For women whose lives are threatened by every pregnancy, a road repair means faster access to a clinic or hospital that might previously have been too far to reach. Now they can seek necessary medical attention. Life expectancy for women in Afghanistan is still only 43 years, and healthy life expectancy—the amount of time one can expect to live healthily, is even less at 36 years. These grim statistics have not significantly improved despite international reconstruction efforts.
Sew Don’t Grow
Economic empowerment is one of the keys to social recovery from Afghanistan’s wars, primarily for women. Years of drought compound the challenges facing this overwhelmingly agrarian society – which makes the one cash crop that thrives in such harsh, dry conditions, the opium poppy, incredibly valuable. Because the Afghan people, especially women in rural Afghanistan, have so few options to earn a living or even a supplemental income, the lure of poppy cultivation and the opium trade is arguably irresistible. Despite the existence of programs training women in non-traditional livelihoods such as solar lantern production, sign painting and cell phone repair, they remain weak at best even in the urban centers, and have little chance of success elsewhere in the countryside. There are few flourishing alternatives in the current climate of Afghanistan, unless they offer something else which can also be ‘homegrown.’
One such substitute is the skill of embroidery which builds on traditions already familiar to Afghans. Decentralized, home-based, and employing expertise passed down from mother to daughter, this art form is filling the employment gap for many rural women and bringing hope of a better future for new generations.
Women embroiderers are reviving and preserving a traditional craft that was previously used primarily to decorate their home surroundings. The mud brick walls of many older women’s homes are hung with embroidered tapestries made in preparation for their weddings. Finely stitched vases overflowing with bouquets of resplendent flowers and precariously perched birds cover the tapestries. Their themes evoke joy, abundance and earthy fertility. Nowadays, most brides’ bedrooms are covered with deep red wall hangings of simplified abstract designs which, sadly, are machine embroidered. Hand embroidered handkerchiefs once distributed at weddings as favors to the guests are also now machine-embroidered.
Surviving and Thriving
Because there are so many obstacles to reaching Afghanistan’s invisible communities of women with opportunities for education, health and hygiene, and a chance to earn income, few organizations have the will, trust, or local capacity to deliver effective programs. Yet one such organization, the non-profit Rubia, does so through established networks, a respect for the rhythm and tempo of rural life and the belief that the only way to sustain change in so fragile an environment is by taking measured steps to build local capacity. Rubia’s mission is ‘to develop economic opportunities through craft heritage, to support education and to promote health and well being for Afghan women and their families.’ The organization is helping local village women revive and utilize centuries-old artistic needlework traditions to create new futures for themselves, their families, their villages, and ultimately, their country. Hence Rubia’s motto: Mending Afghanistan Stitch By Stitch.
Not So Secondary Benefits of a Revival
Embroidery production is an ideal transitional economic opportunity because these projects also offer opportunities for training in basic literacy. For women with no prior schooling, taking instruction and following directions is a new skill to acquire. Even with fine embroidery ability, many women lack experience with finishing techniques and attention to standardized measurements.
Embroidery projects led by designers often offer various training programs teaching embroiderers useful, transferable skills such as taking orders, working to a standard, and time management. Project-generated embroidery tends to have proscribed materials and motifs, often provided by the designer. Embroiderers working on their own continue to sew regionally traditional patterns and motifs, which are then traded and sold by their male relatives in local bazaars. While some of this work is exemplary, the underlying production materials, mostly cheap synthetics, are usually not worthy of the exquisite handwork adorning them.
The Long Road Ahead
Despite Rubia’s presence in Afghanistan for nearly a decade, immediate challenges remain numerous. Access to better materials is uppermost on the list. Silk, cotton and wool are expensive and hard to come by. As export markets embrace what the women produce, the demand particularly for finer and more varied materials has grown tremendously in the past few years. Whereas five years ago designers were bringing in all of these materials from India and Pakistan, some of these products are now available in Kabul. Thus, increased demand may make it possible to reintroduce production of basic higher-quality materials within Afghanistan itself, creating conditions to employ many more people locally.
Rubia’s artisan partners also need access to motifs and patterns, color palettes and designs that sell for higher prices in the world market place. Afghanistan’s years of isolation have had a negative impact on local design sensibility, and also on artisans’ abilities to create their way independently into saleable goods. Foreign design input is still limited, but in many cases essential: designers and product developers know what will sell in export markets.
Finally, Rubia faces great challenges in getting the embroidered goods to market. With so little infrastructure, Afghanistan is a costly and difficult place in which to do business, yet Rubia is banking on the revival and preservation of hand embroidery as a means of income generation, preventing it from becoming a lost art. Hope remains that as the monetary value of this art form increases, the value of Afghan women’s work will flourish along with it.
Author Rachel Lehr, a doctoral researcher who has spent a lifetime studying the cultures and languages of Central Asia, founded Rubia in 2001. Rubia currently relies primarily on the work of many volunteers as well as income from product sales and donations to fund both new and existing programs, and it is currently seeking designers, marketers, and volunteers to develop and promote a new line of products. To inquire about volunteering, please contact Rachel Lehr at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Rubia’s website at www.rubiahandwork.org. This article first appeared in HAND/EYE Magazine 03: Central Asia