A room on the eastern side of the house and a big glass window brings enough light in for Tasleema to work on her shawls until dusk sets in and she ends her days work, she has been sitting and working from the same spot for more than eight years now.
Just like her every other woman in this village of Chadora sit and keep working with thread and needles to create Kani shawls which the Mughals considered mark of nobility and this village has kept the tradition alive. This art of making shawls passes from family to family and the young are keen to learn the intricacies of the work.
In a time of fast run factories these women take their time to produce a marvel that is a master piece and a signature of our culture.
Throughout the region there are government run and privately owned looms employing young women and girls to produce world famous Kani shawls. It is a source of income for these women and a flourishing business for the district. It’s worth mentioning here that there is a tremendous market for these shawls both at national and international levels.
Looms do the manufacturing part but the finishing, needle -work, designing is done by women at home, either in groups or individually. The quality of the final product highly depends on the efficiency of the artisan. The more efficient she is, the more work and hence more money.
These women have a script called Talim through which they learn how to make different designs and to master it is a very big thing.
“My mother taught me to read the script and since then I am doing this work,” Saja Begum a sixty year old lady in Manzhama village.
Women have been doing Kani shawl work from ages and supporting their families in this part of the Valley.
“My husband leaves for the farm and I spend my day here in the loom. It helps me to share the expanses of my children’s education and other daily needs,” says Saja Begum who works from home for nearly two decades.
Working from home gives these women advantage of taking care of their home and working according to availibity of time, but these women are often uneducated and belong to the lower strata of the society. To make their ends meet they work hard to complete their assignments.
“We have a small piece of land so we are not able to meet our needs and that is why I started doing Kani shawl work from home”, Afroza Mir from Khaag area.
Kani shawls are sold at very high rates in the markets but there is a steep difference between what the workers get and the selling price of these shawls. Women are paid less than their male counterparts in this business but unfortunately they have no idea about it.
These women are told that they are working from home at their own pace and ease so they are not equal to men working in looms or any other sector and this thing is evident in the wage disparity.
“I get 250 rupees for a day’s work, and my husband gets 700 if he works in fields. May be he has to work hard on the field that’s why he gets paid more than I do for the same days work”, believes Mymoona Bhat, a Kani shawl artisan.
There is almost no standardized rate list for their wages and no intervention by any government authority as these women are not registered anywhere and are not bound to any firm that will take care of their rights.
Hilal Ahmad, assistant labor commissioner at district Budgam, opines that wide spread business of Kani shawl sector in the district has employed a lot of women and they are working according to the set norms.
“There are set guidelines for those who work in looms but for those who work from home, they don’t fall in any category, neither daily wager nor government employee.”
To complete a single Kani shawl it takes months of hard work and precision.
“The dealers provide us work at home and set a fixed deadline for its completion. At the end of the job we are paid that is nothing in comparison to the price they sell it in the markets,” claims Zareefa Akhter, an artisan from Soibugh.
There are a number of looms both government and private throughout district Budgam but women belonging to the lower middle class families prefer to work from home.
“Men work in looms but women work on Kani shawls at home so there is no question of gender bias in wages,” claims Gulzar Ahmad, AD Handicrafts, from Budgam.
Mostly young girls, women from the lower strata of the society are a part of these looms and hence fall prey to the wage disparity.
“Such women have no education about their rights, and that is the only reason they are being exploited by these loom owners. Unless and until they get to know about their wages, rights and authorities nothing is going to change. Working women irrespective of the field they are entitled to pays equivalent to their male counterparts. Kani shawl sector by and large violates the labor laws meant for women,” said Advocate Humza.
Another thing that is the cause of concern with women associated with Kani shawls is that fast speed digitization of the shawls is pushing back the demand and work of traditional handmade shawls.
“People prefer to buy digital or machine made shawls as the handmade ones are very expensive, and hence our work is reducing by each passing day,” Nayeema Bano, from Soibugh.
On the other hand experts believe that artisans are a very important link to preserve history.
“If these women face difficulties they might end up giving this work up which will be very unfortunate for our cultural heritage. Government needs to intervene”,Ghalam Hassan a school teacher in Lakhripora.
Apart from wage disparity and minimum work these women also face acute health issues that often go unnoticed and finally they are rendered ineffective by their factory owners and are forced to leave their work no matter how skilled they are.
“Patients come to us with weak eye sight, neck aches and breathlessness leading to blurred vision, asthma and slip disk that is the outcome of working with needles for long hours”, says Dr Mariyam posted in a dispensary in Khansahab area.
Written byBaseera Rafiqi
Baseera Rafiqi is a freelance reporter based in Kashmir. She has been writing since 2012 for various local, national and international portals with a special focus on women, development, health and the environment. She is presently a media fellow with SAVE The Children