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Crafting resilience: The practices of making in the Covid-19 lockdown

Zahra Hussain | Published on March 19, 2021

“It was a sudden full stop. We had to stay back home and be safe. It was hard to earn a living. Such an unexpected situation..”

Anoma Angunawala, Kalapuraya, Kandy, Central Province, Sri Lanka

As has been widely reported in the news, the Covid-19 pandemic, resultant lockdown, and associated issues have affected industries across the globe. Along with large industries, high street stores have also incurred major losses. However, informal businesses like craftspeople who have been severely affected by the pandemic, especially in the Global South, have remained under-reported. As part of the project ‘Culture and Conflict’ on the Gender Justice and Security Hub, this piece explores the experiences of craftswomen in South Asia in the early months of the lockdown (May and June 2020).

The project conducted an online survey to understand the ways in which craftswomen are tackling the challenges of lockdown, how this affects their practice of making, and where they place ‘craft-making’ in an uncertain future. This survey was partly to understand how the project could better respond to the needs of these women, whilst also exploring forms of resilience that are adopted, embodied, and lived by them. This piece specifically focuses on the ways in which resilience can be traced and articulated from the responses shared by 148 craftswomen across South Asia, approximately 80 per cent of whom rely on the income generated from their craft products to sustain themselves and their families.

I was also interested to trace resilience in the practices that craftswomen adopt in uncertain and challenging times. Within times of crisis, the notion of resilience is often understood as the ability of groups and communities to cope with external stress and disturbance with minimum damage and impact (Aall and Crocker, 2019; Adler et al., 2015; Cutter et al., 2008). This ability and capacity to adapt develops over time until it becomes a resource learnt from past experiences, preparing us to face uncertainties of the future (Engle et al., 2011; Folke, 2003). However, the situation presented by the Covid-19 pandemic was novel, one that these women had not imagined: “because we didn’t know anything at all, there is so much uncertainty and we had no idea when things will be fine again, so I have stopped for now” (Rehanna, Multan).

Within times of crisis, the notion of resilience is often understood as the ability of groups and communities to cope with external stress and disturbance with minimum damage and impact

The word ‘Resilience’ is a flexible and elastic term deployed and adapted by various disciplines in complex ways over the past twenty years, ranging from socio-ecology to psychology, economics, engineering, and geography (Brown, 2014; Cretney, 2016). Although it has become a buzzword, the concept remains ambiguous (Davoudi et al., 2012; Restemeyer et al., 2015; Walker and Cooper, 2011). The concept of resilience underpins the science of disaster governance and global disaster policy, which has extended two major frameworks for managing disasters and crises on a global level: the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005–2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters (HFA) and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR). In particular, the discussion on resilience is relevant both in terms of how it is assessed as a top-down project and a bottom-up approach, as well as to understanding how life is held together in conditions of crisis and fragility.

Simon and Randalls (2016) provide a useful framework for understanding resilience using health scholars Aranda et al.’s (2012) distinction of resilience into three categories: resilience found, resilience made, and resilience unfinished. Resilience found is understood as an inert or inherent capacity of individuals or systems. Resilience made involves practices of engagement with environment and society, hence a relational understanding is implied that resilience is cultivated through certain practices. Resilience unfinished corresponds with the idea of a constant struggle to become resilient in the face of an uncertain future, hence an incessant commitment which is long term or even permanent.

Using these distinctions, indigenous knowledge is an inherent resource that is practised and cultivated within the context over centuries and remains a continuous process of evolution and adaptation (Mavhura et al., 2013). Thus, I propose Aranda et al.’s three distinctions of resilience overlap and occur simultaneously, allowing us to understand the position of craftswomen within the present uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic. The occurrence and overlapping of the multiple understandings of resilience can be seen as a process in crafting, implying a forward movement (borrowing from Ingold) in experimentation as people use their skills, materials, and techniques to engage with the context. It involves their ability to make decisions for themselves, as well as adapt their practices of craft-making in order to live on in challenging times.

Findings from the survey:

A variety of factors contributed to the challenges faced by craftswomen during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown. Approximately 87 per cent of respondents reported curtailment in their ability to sell their craft products, described by Neelum from Daulatkhel in Swat, Pakistan: “The lockdown will most definitely affect my ability to sell my crafts because the markets are closed and there are no customers.” A craftswoman from Peshawar, Pakistan said “I take orders from individuals both for stitching and fabric painting, but due to the lockdown I am unable to reach out to people for orders. There is less work. Before the lockdown I used to stitch five suits daily, but now I am only doing two to three suits and sometimes there are no orders.”

Some women have analysed the market itself in addition to explaining the challenges: “Apart from that people are being careful with their money and are not spending unnecessarily” (Neelum, Daulatkhel, Swat). One explained the situation of being unable to market her crafts since “Businesses are not doing well and people are careful with their money. They only buy what is necessary” (Haseeba, Saidu Sharif, Swat). Meanwhile, some anticipate how the situation will develop with the closure of markets: “If the lockdown continues into winter, it will be very difficult to sell our products because the markets would remain closed and people will not venture out of their homes due to fear of the disease” (Saira, Odigram, Swat).

Craftswomen from Sri Lanka (mainly Kandy) highlighted decrease in tourism as a major factor for reduced sales because they primarily target visitors to their city. Furthermore, the availability of materials for producing craft products was noted as one of the challenges facing women due to the lockdown. In Jammu and Kashmir, the lockdown further restricted their already constrained movement and mobility. Saira Tabassum from Bufliaz, Poonch, Jammu and Kashmir explains “there is no wonder that corona has affected the whole world. But it has affected people of Jammu and Kashmir more than usual. We were out of transport facilities, prices were hiking, raw material was triple the usual price”. Evidently, multiple factors have affected the production and sale of craft products.

“I take orders from individuals both for stitching and fabric painting, but due to the lockdown I am unable to reach out to people for orders. There is less work. Before the lockdown I used to stitch five suits daily, but now I am only doing two to three suits and sometimes there are no orders.”

Within this context, a few questions in the survey were targeted at understanding how the practice of craft-making was affected by the pandemic. Their primary aim was to explore the importance of craft-making for women, which also gives insight into resilience specifically with reference to how this practice allowed them to cope with, make do, and live on in the challenging environment. The survey indicated that the activity of craft-making is mainly learned at home from mothers or grandmothers.

For more than half of respondents, craft-making is an activity that is done throughout the year and for some every day. This is very much part of the time that women spend at home, indicating that it is intrinsic to their everyday life. It has been noted that practices of everyday life contribute to identity formation and play an integral role in the maintenance of a sense of self, cohesion, and belonging (Stevens, 2012, p. 588). As one respondent explained, “we are very worried due to the pandemic, hence to take our mind off this, we sit together at home and do knitting. We share the worries and it gives us peace of mind”.

Another woman from Laspur Valley, KPK, Northern Pakistan explained how she grew up with craft-making as a practice performed in her immediate environment and so it reminds her of being with her family. She described her time in lockdown as “a time to bond with my cousins and aunts, we sit together and make carpets to pass the time during lockdown as we used to do in olden times”. The ‘doing’ of craft as an activity within the home in the company of fellow women potentially contributes to one’s sense of self, cohesion, and belonging. However, it is important to note that the ability to work on crafts has only been afforded to those who have been based at home; those working in factories or vocational centres have been unable to continue with their crafts.

“practices of everyday life contribute to identity formation and play an integral role in the maintenance of a sense of self, cohesion, and belonging”

In regards to craftswomen being engaged in crafts during the lockdown, the survey revealed interesting and contradicting insights. Around 34 per cent mentioned that they keep themselves engaged in order to not think about the pandemic, 29 per cent said that they do not feel like craft-making due to the pandemic, and 16 per cent indicated that they are making more craft than usual.

Thasneema from Chilawathurai, Mannar, Northern Province of Sri Lanka said that she continues to make crafts as it “keeps [her] mind off worries”. Yasmeen from Bhoosakhel, Charsaddah noted that “Since everything is closed, I don’t go out and nobody comes to my house, therefore I have a lot of time on my hands and I use that time to make khaadi these days. In fact, I have produced more cloth than I usually do”. Zaitun from Kabul explained that she does not make any crafts as there are no exhibitions to sell them at, while Mikai from Kalash said “I was very scared plus I had a lot of products left that needed sold before I could make any more”. Bibi Kobra from Kandahar explains how the closure of the bazaar put an end to her craft business of Khamak dozi, so she does not feel like making any more crafts.

“Around 34 per cent mentioned that they keep themselves engaged in order to not think about the pandemic, 29 per cent said that they do not feel like craft-making due to the pandemic, and 16 per cent indicated that they are making more craft than usual”

These different ways of coping with the pandemic demonstrate that some craftswomen who continue to work may be deemed resilient, whilst others stop working and may not be considered so resilient. However, deeper analysis of the responses shared by craftswomen tell a different story. What is important is how women assess their condition and the lockdown situation and take decisions based on that assessment. Seemingly inconsistent practices of ‘making do’ during the lockdown can be seen in the survey responses, but in each case, craftswomen have used whatever is at hand (be it time or material) in ways that make sense to them to respond to the challenges they face. For example, in the absence of orders, some craftswomen were keen to use the situation to try something new, such as preparing wedding dresses for people in the neighbourhood. One said “I kept doing my work because I was hopeful for the business once the lockdown is lifted, although it has reduced drastically but I managed to complete and get a few orders” (Shamim, Multan).

“in each case, craftswomen have used whatever is at hand (be it time or material) in ways that make sense to them to respond to the challenges they face”

For some, the practice of making crafts proved to be a positive distraction from an uncertain and dire situation: “Due to lockdown my husband has lost his job and I am worried about our financial conditions such as rent, grocery, school fees etc. The only way I can forget my problems is by finding a distraction which I find in craft-making” (Aliya, Charsadda). Others were careful about how many products they made during this time: “if I make too many goods, I might not be able to sell them therefore I don’t feel like making anything” (Hifza, Odigram – Swat). Another added that “lockdown is seriously affecting our business of craft-making. So much has accumulated that we are fearful it might not sell and fetch a good price hence the motivation to make more crafts has died and we don’t feel like doing anything” (Haseeba, Saidu Sharif – Swat).

The decision to not make crafts is based not only on the careful assessment of the market value for products, but also on feelings of fear, anticipation, and motivation. Whilst craft-making proves to be a positive distraction for some craftswomen, for others an increasing stock of craft products in their house is stressful and thus best avoided. Here, the three categories (found, made, unfinished) of resilience discussed by Aranda et al. can be traced in their ability to take informed decisions for continuing or discontinuing the practice of craft-making based on their analysis for tackling uncertain conditions.

The insights discussed show that resilience is not a stable or fixed condition; it is made and unmade, punctuated as women navigate new terrain. These challenges are multiple, both material (availability and access to raw materials and market) and immaterial (emotional: fear, anxiety or hope) and so resilience is exercised in different ways. Though a stable sense of resilience cannot be derived from these responses, but a possibility is ever present – discerned through the different ways in which craftswomen continue to deal with the pandemic. Resilience unfinished refers to the continued efforts of craftswomen to assess the situation and retrofit actions to adapt to it.

I propose that any intervention (from outside, the State, NGOs or otherwise) must be channelled to explore different avenues and markets that enable the practice of crafting to live on. Crucially it must live on in ways that allow craftswomen to craft a desirable future for themselves. Feelings of being locked in, stuck in an unfavourable situation, and unable to foresee the future were described by the craftswomen. Therefore, to actually strengthen their resilience is to ensure the movement of their craft products in times of lockdown and limited mobility. This requires identifying the bottlenecks in this process and exploring ways of relieving these so that the process can continue with minimal disruption.

One way of doing this could be to explore digital means of connection and access to the market. Digital platforms are a useful resource that craftswomen will require proper training for. Training in this sector will not only allow women to remain in touch with the market, but also to learn to document and photograph their crafts. This can be introduced in areas that have internet access via cellular service. However, digital platforms require a proper digital infrastructure that must be made available to those living in remote towns and mountain areas where internet accessibility is an issue. In this case, the government sector has to play its part in providing the required infrastructure for the craft communities to tackle challenges posed by limited accessibility to physical and digital markets.

More than anything, this pandemic has created space for us to reflect upon ways in which our interventions can strengthen the resilience of craftswomen in times of restricted mobility, be it during pandemics, conflicts or disasters.

Image: A Kalasha woman wearing beaded necklaces which is a significant part of their everyday apparel. During lockdown, they continued to make these necklaces for themselves. Image credit: Zahra Hussain.

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