Pushed to the Margins, Women Weave Their Wishes in Rug Factories

Photo: Sacha Myers/Save the Children

Mahbooba, a 19-year-old high school graduate, was preparing for the national university entrance exam, known as Kankor, when the Taliban seized control of Kabul. As the group went on to impose a slew of restrictions on women, including banning them from higher education institutions, her hope for entering university was dashed. Squeezed out of public life and largely restricted to her room, she turned to weaving carpet.

“I had worked really hard to study and become a doctor and make a decent living,” said Mahbooba, who is working in her uncle’s carpet factory in an impoverished settlement in western Kabul. “I dreamed of wearing my medical robe with stethoscope one day, but now I hold a hook and weave my wishes into a rug knot by knot.” For Mahbooba, spending 10 hours each day sitting abreast on a wooden bench to weave a 24-square-meter carpet was a difficult choice. Mahbooba’s father cannot work because of a paralysis. So, the 6,000 Afghani (nearly $90) that she makes is the defining bid for her family’s survival. 

While the job has provided a glimmer of hope for Mahbooba in terms of earning an income, she is staring down an uncertain future under Taliban rule. “For how long will life go on like this?” she asked, adding: “If the ban on women’s education is not halted, an entire generation will be left in the dark and without any basic rights.”

The new job also comes with multidimensional health hazards. Mahbooba says she has seen other weavers, who have been at the job for years, complaining about back pain due to constant sitting in front of the carpet hanger, and poor eyesight because of grim light and long working hours that include staring at the map. “I have also heard that in the long run, it will cause breathing problems and other sorts of diseases,” she explained, saying “These issues could affect my health too if I work longer.”

The growth of home-based carpet-weaving factories employing women explains the reports by international observers such as the World Bank about the increase in women’s employment despite the widespread restrictions that push women out of public life. Mahbooba is not alone whose hard-fought dreams have been robbed. The hardline Islamist group’s restrictive gender policies are a blow to millions of women who are banned from high schools and universities. Many are left to spend their time doing household chores, others are forced to take on indoor jobs like weaving carpets.

A home-based carpet-weaving factory. Photo: Sacha Myers/Save the Children

The group’s draconian gender laws, which critics say account for gender apartheid, have removed women from many government jobs and working with international groups, including UN agencies. According to the UN Development Program (UNDP), the ban on women’s employment has cost the country’s crumbling economy nearly $1 billion. The move also prompted international donors and major aid groups to suspend their operations in the country.

Required to cover in a burqa and be accompanied by a male chaperone, women are also barred from parks, gyms, beauty parlors, public baths, and other social premises.

In the western province of Herat, 25-year-old Khadija was in her third year studying computer science when the ban on universities came into force. As the Taliban’s gender segregation and restrictions in public intensified, she joined her mother in weaving carpets at home. One carpet, which typically takes three months to weave, brings them nearly $400, a sum that barely helps fulfill their financial needs.

“I was not interested in spending my day weaving carpet because I had hopes of completing my higher education and securing a formal job,” she said. “But, what a pity, that a medieval and anti-women group now rules over, holding back the rights of half of the country’s population.”

Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan is the only country in the world that bans girls and women from education on the pretext of Sharia law and Afghan cultural norms. The Taliban regime, which no country has officially recognized, has been repeatedly condemned and criticized for its drastic gender policies. The international community and the UN have made women’s rights to education one of the shoving points for the isolated Taliban’s inclusion in the global community.

Behind the edicts restricting women’s rights and basic freedoms is the group’s reclusive and unseen supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, who is surrounded by hardline and old-guard clerics in their Kandahar base. Analysts say some Taliban leaders are divided up about women’s right to education with Akhundzada, who remains strictly skeptical of modern education. The group has issued over 75 decrees limiting women’s and girls’ participation in public life.

Carpet weaving is an ancient tradition in Afghanistan, especially among the ethnic Turkmens in the northern regions and artisans in western Herat. Historically, the country’s carpets, rugs, and kilims were produced in traditional colors and motifs, and decorative knots. In recent years, however, patterns depicting helicopters, Kalashnikovs, tanks, and portraits of Afghan and American politicians are also ubiquitous on these hand-knotted rugs, telling a history rife with conflict, foreign interventions, and bloodshed. Such patterns sold well in the last two decades as hundreds of thousands of soldiers, spies, development workers, diplomats, and journalists poured from all over the world each trying to build on the ashes of an old civilization a new country in their own image.  

For years after the country descended into chaos following the Soviet invasion in 1979, hand-woven carpet production provided a vital source of income to many households in Afghanistan, especially during the Taliban’s first turn in ruling the country. As the economy lagged in providing job opportunities to a population growingly younger, informal employment such as carpet weaving continued to preoccupy the workforce. In 2016, carpets made the country’s fourth most legal export at $38, and, in a more peaceful time, exports stood at $150 million. More than 85% went to Pakistan only to be exported around the world as Pakistan’s domestic production. Around 2 million people, mainly women, are employed in the carpet weaving industry across the country.  

As the formal economy continues to shrink under the Taliban, carpet weaving emerges once again as an occupation of last resort. The factory where Mahbooba works along with 30 other women, many of them educated, is owned by her uncle, 45-year-old Ali Jan. “The business is not good nowadays, but we are trying to produce as many carpets as possible to help gain a regular income,” he said in a tempered tone. “Most of the production is exported to neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan, where carpets are processed. Once washed and cut, they are mostly marketed and exported as “Made in Pakistan” products.”

Even in rural areas, there is a trend of educated women turning to carpet weaving as the rest of the economy closes to them. In the northern Sar-e-Pol province, Zahra has been weaving hand-made rugs for most of her adult life. In recent years, she has seen a rising number of university-educated women turning to the business out of necessity.

“Many of the women working in carpet factories come from low-income families, but women who lost their jobs since the Taliban overtook power are also forced to enter this job,” she said. “They often work with a daily wage of 100 Afghani (less than $2).”

For families like Aziza’s who are teetering on the edge, even a meager income is a lucky chance in a country characterized as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. As she put it: “Prices have spiked in local bazaars, but this job [weaving carpet] at least brings some food to the table.” The UN estimates that nearly 20 million people in Afghanistan are facing acute food insecurity—with more than 6 million of them on the brink of starvation.

As the winter approaches, the job becomes even harder for the likes of Aziza as they will have to cover the windows with plastic and heat up the rooms. In places like Sar-e-Pul, without proper heating, indoor temperatures in the winter could drop to near-freezing overnight.

Amid an increasing need for foreign aid due to economic contraction and lack of employment opportunities, international agencies like the UN Refugee Agency (UNHRC) are supporting local carpet businesses and processing facilities for displaced women in several provinces, including the northern province of Jawzjan. Among the artisans are many school-age girls impacted by the Taliban’s ban on secondary education.

The Taliban, however, see the rise in the number of women in the carpet-weaving business as an opportunity to boast against their increasing curbs on women’s rights. Abdul Basir Amini, Taliban’s head of commerce in Sar-e-Pol said that nearly 7,000 women are currently working in the carpet industry in the province. “During the former government, the carpet trade was declining,” he said, adding: “It has taken a sharp uptick now, providing jobs for women.”

For many women behind carpet hangers such as Mahbooba and Aziza, it is clear that working from dawn to dusk in home-based factories is a survival mechanism of last resort rather than a choice of their own accord. “I want to continue my education, move forward, and work in a field that I wish,” Mahbooba said. “It is my right and that of millions of women in Afghanistan.”