HERAT, Afghanistan — The women of Herat, Afghanistan recently started revisiting an ancient tradition that once flourished and defined their city: silk making. Previously an important Silk Road trading hub and an oasis for travelers, Herat is a longstanding cultural center and major city in western Afghanistan. Its prosperous silk trade diminished due to decades of war and Taliban rule. Recent projects launched by the Rehabilitation Association and Agriculture Development for Afghanistan (RAADA) offered training and resources aimed to restore the cultural craft of silk making in Afghanistan, thereby providing financial opportunity and equality to thousands of women.
Hardships of Afghan Women
Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001 stripped women in Afghanistan of their human rights. The regime systematically waged war against women, leaving a horrific humanitarian catastrophe that proved detrimental to Afghanistan as a whole.
Soon after the Taliban took control of the country, the regime completely denied women their education, ability to work and freedom to leave their homes without a male counterpart. Additionally, the Taliban closed women’s university and forced nearly all women to quit their jobs. Women could only work in very restricted circumstances.
Decades of war beginning in the 1980s coupled with Taliban rule crippled Afghanistan’s economy. This forced most of the population, especially women, into extreme poverty. Fortunately, women have made immense progress since Taliban rule has weakened significantly since 2001. Increasing numbers of women are completing education and returning to the workforce. According to data from the World Bank, nearly 22% of women in Afghanistan work today, compared to just 15% in 2001.
Women of Herat Restore Freedom and Culture
Women still face opposition to equality from strict Islamist groups and family members that adhere to conservative practices in Afghanistan. However, the women of Herat looked past these societal hurdles and found financial freedom and equality with silk production.
The RAADA spearheaded the revival of silk making in Afghanistan. The organization first implemented its Women of the Silk Road project in 2014. A training center was established for 1,250 women of the Zindajan district, improving silk rearing, processing, coloring and weaving. The project also trained the women in marketing their silk products, specifically in Italy.
The RAADA launched the most recent project in 2019 titled Women Empowerment. This project aimed to empower 1,250 women through the development of women’s socio-economic sources and increase women’s economic participation. Silk rearing and small business management training through the Zanan Herat Silk Production Company helped accomplish these goals.
Now nearly 4,000 women produce silk in Zindajan, a district on the edges of Herat. They raise silkworms from eggs, feeding them mulberries from trees that surround the city. The women harvest and dry the silkworm cocoons and spin the silk yarn by hand in a month-long process. They then weave the precious silk into traditional Afghanistan carpets, scarves and other garments. The remaining silk is either exported to other regions of Afghanistan or sold in Herat’s silk bazaar.
Nazir Ahmad Ghafoori, head of the RAADA, hopes to include women from other provinces outside of Herat in the silk production business. The board of executives reported that the silk production business has already boosted the economy of the Zindajan district. Furthermore, Ghafoori helped create an executive board of 50 women in Herat that oversees the women’s working conditions.
The efforts of the RAADA and the women of Herat have made huge strides for women in Afghanistan since the decline of the Taliban. The revival of silk making in Afghanistan gives women financial freedom. It not only provides them a vital role in their community in times of extreme poverty but it also provides the opportunity to show Afghanistan’s culture and craft to the rest of the world.
– Dalton Dunning