Insights from Afghanistan: Reflections from GoodWeave's Female Head of Inspections

Hajar HussainiIn May of 2011, GoodWeave began assembling a team to work in Afghanistan, where a tradition of fine carpet weaving began in the country’s ancient past and thrived for centuries. In recent years, war, political instability and market competition from other countries’ machine-made rugs have weakened the industry. As Afghanistan’s largest legal exporting industry and an important source of employment, the renewal of the handmade carpet sector can play a vital role in the country’s future, but only when equitable working conditions and no child labor are assured.

In September 2011, GoodWeave began to establish its infrastructure in Afghanistan under the leadership of Fazel Wasit. Hajar Hussaini was appointed as senior monitoring officer in June 2012. According to Beth Gottschling Huber, international programs officer for GoodWeave USA, inspections for the charter licensee partner began this summer.

Because of work restrictions, most weaving is now home-based and looms are kept in the female quarters of the home, where men cannot enter. GoodWeave therefore works with female inspectors who get to know the families and children, to learn how GoodWeave can help them. “It takes a woman to get that level of information and acceptance,” Huber says, “and it takes brave women to go into strange households. I give them a lot of credit for doing this.” Because demand for certified Afghan carpets is greater than supply right now, Huber says, GoodWeave can help revitalize the industry in an ethical and fair way. “We hope to recapture a part of the market that is gone now. We have a fabulous country director and a great team. Sometimes the process is slow but the team of people, and getting things accomplished every day, keeps me optimistic,” she says.

For more insight on GoodWeave’s work in Afghanistan, we turned to Hajar Hussaini, GoodWeave’s lead inspector there. In an email conversation, Hajar generously shared her insights and hopes for a prosperous future where GoodWeave certified handmade carpets can make a real difference to families in post-war Afghanistan. Hajar’s responses to our questions are both informative and moving; she speaks eloquently for herself and her country.

GoodWeave: Tell us a little about the tradition of carpet weaving in Afghanistan, and how the Afghan people feel about the industry.

Hajar Hussaini: Afghanistan has a long tradition of handmade carpets, and it is one of the biggest employing industries for the Afghan people. Carpet weaving remains a part of Afghan culture and value among Afghans, and thus it will continue to be a skill that has direct impact on overall family livelihood as well as economic development. The designs of the carpets produced today are totally different than years past, when only a few colors were used to dye the wool and present a specific design.

GoodWeave: Lesser-quality machine-made carpets are challenging the Afghanistan handmade carpet industry by taking market share. How can GoodWeave certification help to restore and preserve the best of the carpet-making tradition?

Hajar Hussaini: Like people in other countries, Afghans also have a strong bias toward branded products and understand that quality stands with certain guarantees that can come in the form of branding or labeling. As such, the GoodWeave label as an assurance can have a major impact in reviving the carpet industry and increasing production both at the local level and at an international level. The greater importance that I see is the demand of the international buyers in the global markets. That can play a vital role in the revival of the industry and provide a better livelihood for the weavers in this key sector in the country. The other major promise it gives to people is that GoodWeave certification offers a promise to international buyers who are committed to purchasing child-labor-free carpets.

GoodWeave: Please tell us a little about the inspection process. How do you build trust and cooperation with everyone involved? What are some of the obstacles that must be overcome?

Hajar Hussaini: Afghanistan, with the high level of illiteracy, remains a highly traditional country. We must simplify anything before even thinking about presenting or launching it. The same rule applies to inspection. As Afghans, [the GoodWeave staff] understand what people think when they hear the word inspection. It sounds like a military term that may be unwelcome in many communities, but our team acts more like community workers. We started our inspection by building strong working relationships with those involved and then paving the way for the inspection team to approach families in the weaving communities.

Yes, building trust and gaining the trust of those families were very vital and key to our success. It is worth mentioning that carpet-weaving communities are among the most deprived ones, many have never been visited by social or aid workers, and have never been helped in the past two decades. Visiting those families and listening to them was very helpful to build the relationship and the trust that both parties needed. Talking about a better future and a new tomorrow were things that they enjoyed hearing from us and wishing, with them, for a better future for their children was something that gave them hope and strength.

Some of the challenges were establishing contacts with those involved in the carpet-weaving industry, considering all the traditional and community issues; convincing families to [let us] visit them on a regular basis; and in particular, to take their photographs and reflect the realities of their lives and their skills. Taking the risk of being humiliated by extremists and even becoming victims of unforeseen situations are other challenges that still remain when we conduct inspections in the weaving communities, considering the fact that Afghanistan is traditionally and culturally a sensitive country.

GoodWeave: Can you share some of the hopes of young Afghan girls today? What do they dream of for their lives? How can the work of GoodWeave help them to succeed?

Hajar Hussaini: Generally speaking, after the fall of the Taliban, a new dawn began in the lives of Afghan women and girls after a very dark era. Most Afghan women and girls are hopeful for a better tomorrow and do not want to hesitate to contribute to any movement of efforts that would ensure their rights in the country. Today’s general hopes and dreams, from my own perspective, are the following:

  • Gender equality: Breaking the limitations on girls attending school or university, or being independent and going to work.
  • Get rid of the classic traditions of families such as forced and unwanted marriages. I hope for a day that girls will be able to decide their marriage according to their own will (not by the decisions of their parents and families).
  • To be respected as human beings while at their parents’ houses and after marriage in their husbands’ homes.

GoodWeave can play a very important role through conducting the following programs:

  • Adult literacy programs for women and girls who were not able to attend school because of family hindrance or community-based problems.
  • Removing child laborers from looms and paving the way for their admission to schools, and financially supporting their education.
  • Establishing daycare centers for weaving mothers who have babies and don’t have anyone to take care of their children for them.
  • Making efforts to standardize weavers’ wages/income based on national law.
  • Helping weavers with health problems through third-party health services centers.

GoodWeave: Knowing that you’re just getting started with the certification program in Afghanistan, what has been a highlight of your work with GoodWeave so far? What has been the greatest challenge?

Hajar Hussaini: The highlight of our work with GoodWeave so far has been very successful steps [made] in establishing contacts, having access to weaving households in the communities, building the trust and smoothing the road ahead for our future plans and programs that will further help those weaving families. The greatest challenge for us at the beginning was security. However, there are a few other challenges that we have to face. As you know, a huge number of girls and women annually become victims of spraying acid on their way between home and school. [A girl may] become a victim of sexual assault, or even abducted or killed by anti-government elements or Taliban.

GoodWeave: What do you most want Westerners to know about girls and women in Afghanistan, and about their lives?

Hajar Hussaini: We want Westerners to know the following about women and girls and their lives in Afghanistan:

  • Girls and women are victims of traditional and cultural indecencies that mostly originate from illiteracy and no rule of law.
  • Lack of freedom and access to education as well as jobs in the society.
  • Violations of girls and women’s rights by all major parties playing various roles in the country.
  • Improper treatment of girls and women by families at home level and extremists as well as ex-warlords at various government levels.

GoodWeave: Progress in Afghanistan often appears to be more difficult or take longer than anticipated. How do you stay patient and optimistic, and encourage the women and girls you work with to envision a better future?

Hajar Hussaini: In a post-conflict country such as Afghanistan, I do believe that progress takes place slowly and appears to be difficult but certainly not impossible. I personally believe in untiring efforts by men and women in the country that could take us to the level of prosperity we all envision for our future. I am optimistic for a bright future and this optimism comes from the progress, although slow and small but visible, made in the past 10 years. Our presence in the communities is an encouragement to all those women and girls at home. I also feel optimism because in GoodWeave we work to make a difference in the lives of the children who are the true hope for the future development and success of Afghanistan. I truly believe that our investment today in Afghan children can get us to the fulfillment that every Afghan dreams about in the future.

 


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