Published in Nov-Dec 2020
Crafts have given Pakistan a tangible sense of identity. They require concentration, patience and skill to ensure a quality product is delivered. But what of the human element? Although the role of women in preserving these traditions is well-known, the question is whether they can earn a decent living doing this in 2021. Or are they caught in a cycle of poverty as generation after generation remains entrenched in the old ways of making things? Despite these questions, efforts have been made to promote crafts as both a form of business and social entrepreneurship.
In South Punjab in particular, in areas like Muzaffarabad, where women from the lower economic segments have no access to job opportunities, earning a living (that too a meagre one) comes down to making handicrafts. Hence, the need for investment which has given rise to the concept of social enterprises managed by people living in urban centres such as Islamabad, Lahore and Multan, where there is a market to ensure a stronger means of livelihood for these artisans and craftswomen. It is a model that is understood as an attempt to create a win-win situation, where the women earn a decent wage and the people with access to networks can also gain something out of it. So can craft work as an agent of change at the rural level? Has it changed the lives of craftswomen for the better? And is it worth investing in a field which has suffered tremendously from lack of development?
Sobia Amir lives in Multan and has a home in Sheikh Colony. For the past 15 years she has been training women of all ages in varying handicrafts. “I run different projects. Right now I have 30 ladies, of which 10 are undergoing training in needlework and 20 are taught fabric painting.” The women are then able to sell their work through the partnerships and collaborations which Amir organises in order to create a platform that provides access to a customer base. As hopeful as it sounds, the results tell a different story. “I have been associated with chambers of commerce and NGOs, but it has not always been a good experience; many false promises are made and “aurton ko koi faida nahin hota” (women do not gain anything from the experience).
Still, after much trial and error, Amir has developed several associations with organisations that work to deliver results and enable artisans to earn directly. “When a woman earns, she is able to take the money home. A lot of brands come to us and take our work but there are two problems here. One is there is no payment from the brands directly and secondly, there is no increment in earnings.”
Clearly this is a field that carries a high risk because there is no stability in terms of sales or income equality, which means the amount earned varies from craftswoman to craftswoman. “Many earn a lot, some share the money with their husbands and fathers and then there are some jinka buss guzara hai, ghar ka choola jalta hai (they are only able to make ends meet).”This form of inequality is a function of local market forces and changes in consumer buying patterns.
Shah’s Embroideries are a craft-based brand set up in Multan by Razia Shah in 1990. Shah entered the field of craft when she went from presenting hand embroidered dupattas to friends and family in her hometown of Rawalpindi, to setting up a boutique offering premium delicately embroidered fabrics. At that time Multan had no boutiques selling hand-embroidered formal or prêt wear and customers had to either go to the surrounding rural areas or the older parts of the city such as Hussainagah (both of which are difficult to access due to cultural factors such as pardah) to obtain them.
Realising she had tapped into a market, Shah began to engage with Multan based artisans to create fabric based creations that catered to the Multani aesthetic. Today her daughter Filza Mumtaz, who works with artisans in Muzaffarabad, runs the boutique and has taken the business online. She argues that there needs to be an understanding of the term ‘artisan’. “The assumption is that these women have gone to an institute and learnt a skill as artists. In fact, the craft has been passed down from generation to generation and it is difficult to train them into adopting new techniques. These women earn and run households, unlike their men who do nothing.” With the onus on them as breadwinners and homemakers, the question is, have these earnings made a difference to their lives?
Having seen her mother work with craftswomen in Multan and now working herself with women in rural Muzaffarabad, Filza is witness to the change that craft makes in improving lives. “Although it is slow, their lives have changed for the better.” What determines the level of change is the geographical location. Filza notes that the women located closer to urban areas are not only able to develop their handwork skills better, they are also sending their children to school due to the higher income they are earning, whereas their counterparts based further away earn only enough to buy better materials. Mumtaz argues that there are miles to go before a wider change can come. “The biggest issue is sustainability. How many sales can be generated, and for that evolution to take place, an artisan needs help and it costs money.”
With malls cropping up in urban centres offering new, fancier items that customers are lapping up, it comes down to people like Mumtaz who walk that fine line between preserving heritage and developing an economically viable business model. “There is a trickledown effect and if this sector is developed, the change can be amazing. Our craft can definitely be exported and this is an area that needs to be tapped into as people abroad have the money and the inclination to spend on arts, crafts and culture.”
Lack of sustainability means lack of sales which in turn means lack of development, resulting in these women unable make real changes in their lives. With a limited product range, customers usually turn to shopping malls for prêt wear with digital print designs that are cheaper. In this regard, it is pertinent to add that although the economy may be faltering, it comes down to customer choice and preference.
Although demand for local craft is limited to special occasions, there is potential for generating demand on a nationwide basis. Ayesha Ali runs Kayal, an exclusive lifestyle store in Islamabad that provides a platform to craft based small businesses and artisans. She says customers are typically in their early twenties and “want accessories to buy, artwork in their homes and beautiful clothes to wear. These younger customers need more than a product; they need an authentic and global language.”
This ties in with Mumtaz’s belief about sustainability and the need for development. While more and more craft is available in urban centres due to the efforts made by people like Ali, prices are going up, causing customers to question whether they are worth buying or not. With purchasing priorities varying, there is also a lack of value addition, which further restricts the market. Amir is also of the opinion that younger people want flashy items. “No matter how much you market artisan made or handmade, the product has to sing.”
According to Hira Mansoor, Research & Evaluation expert at Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, “the rural product market is not competitive. Compare rural craft design to urban based designs and the former appear outdated in terms of design, because product design is not there.” However, in Mumtaz’s opinion, given a young population that is increasingly keen on owning their identities, craft offers immense potential and change. There are attempts to conserve craft based heritage via NGOs and businesses such as Kaarvan Crafts Foundation and Behbud respectively. Still, there is no denying that a lot more can be done. After all, heritage is not just a reminder of the past but also very much part of the present. Why not let it define the future?
Mehr Husain is an author and publisher based in Lahore. email@example.com