Project: Culture and Conflict

This article focusses on the findings and recommendations specific to Afghanistan from the Culture and Conflict project. Overall findings for the project can be found here.

Working across four countries, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, this research investigates the value of culture to women in conflict settings, seeking to understand gendered economic exclusion and its relationship to peacebuilding, economic agency and empowerment. It uses a cultural mapping methodology to explore how communities of women across different conflict contexts rely on coded and tacit knowledge to rebuild their lives and to understand how cultural practices continue to exist and resist in these challenging contexts.

The following article focusses on the findings and recommendations from Afghanistan specifically. You can find findings for India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka linked here and below.

  • Little documentation of material cultures and practices outside of oral histories in a range of languages. Prior to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, the core focus of the work was documenting the practices of craft making, which are embodied and not documented or spoken publicly about or valued outside of the home and communities. There is little recognition of a high degree of knowledge and complex skills of making within national level policies.
  • Intergenerational learning within women’s homes is high. In the context of our focus on textiles we noted that needlework and embroidery were described as central to women’s lives and specific to their ethnicity and identity. Girls as young as six years old spend time watching and learning from women within their family of neighbours of their own ethnicity making detailed beautiful crafts for use within their homes or for their trousseau for when they get married. This practice is community based, and done from within the homes, and is an occasion for catching up on news and happenings. It is also an opportunity used by women to learn from those older and more experienced than them. This mode of teaching and learning through an intergenerational peer group brings many benefits to the psychosocial wellbeing of individuals and strengthens family ties and community relationships.
  • The women have a high level of skill and tacit knowledge levels of making are high. Most women and girls are highly skilled at making complex Khammakdozi and Charmadozi. Stitches which require very fine needles, long hours of work, good light and very specific fabrics. Designs are traditional and Afghanistan has the highest skill levels present as embodied knowledge amongst each of our focus group members.
  • Displaced women and girls continue to practice this work from their new locations. Women who live in Pakistan as refugees, have been known to practice these skills from within refugee camps. The value is for both commercial income generation and therapeutic linked to identities and histories before displacement is high for women.
  • Gendered distinctions are made between the designer and the maker. Those who make products such as kilims/ rugs and carpets – are seen as labourers and tend to be women, whereas the design content is done by men creating a very stark gender hierarchy within the practice that extends through to the financial management and control of any income generated.
  • After the 2021 Taliban takeover, some women in the project were forced to flee the country. As their rights were being rolled back, mobility restricted and security threatened, somewomen in this project were able to flee from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Several women took their looms and craft tools with them as a mark of resistance, resilience, and pride in what they make, its history and its connection to their identity. They continued to produce in Pakistan and sent materials for the sale. This cross-border initiative was an agile response from our partners.
  • This work is a vital lifeline for women who remain in Afghanistan and who are banned from employment, professional spaces and education. For women who remain inside Afghanistan, craft making from within the home can be one of the only options for income.

“Resilience of culture that is so deeply embedded within the identity and their pride is unshakable. You cannot break it irrespective of the presence of the Taliban, or the Russians or the Americans.”

  • Resilience of culture is deeply embedded within the women’s identity and pride. The Afghan women in this project demonstrate a deeply rooted resilience and commitment to their cultural practices, irrespective of the Taliban and interference from Western powers. Their craft making and intergenerational knowledge exchange shows the salience of cultural practices in conflict-affected contexts and that such practices can and do outpace the many political upheavals in this country.
  • Afghan women’s continued engagement with the project after August 2021 was especially challenging. This engagement which saw Afghan women continue to work from varying locations in South Asia, be displaced from their homes and communities, and be presented with a gender apartheid policy indicated the need to discuss their needs and challenges within the risk framework with partners. We have updated safeguarding protocol and work collaboratively on the Afghan Project which emerged as a broader approach along activism and humanitarian need spectrums. Here a cross-border initiative is key for continuity of the project for those women who crossed land borders into Pakistan. We have located resource people to support the project from within Pakistan, shifted to online engagement and reviewed trade and export logistics from Kabul post 2021 to enable continuation of work with our Afghan focus groups.
  • Technology driven solutions to continue to trade were used successfully. We connected with an app-based humanitarian aid provider who is Afghan. The Aseel App provided logistic support for craft makers to sell through their online platform. We used their help to fly goods out of Kabul to the UK. Our partner now has a tie-up with Aseel to continue their work on craft and enterprise.
  • Scope of value to displaced Afghan women since 2021. Our training modules for skills mapping, researcher training, design training, product innovation training, colour and embroidery skills training, social media and marketing training, as well as price training could be of value to Afghan women in any nation where they have internet access. This can be delivered as short packages to anyone with some support for verbal translation. The material benefits in displacement settings are be high.
  • Value of making, cultural histories to displaced populations is high. Tacit knowledge, practice as therapy, material culture as pride, income as dignity are all applicable to each displaced group and individual from Afghanistan.

NGOs and International Organisations:

  • Shift the narrative around Afghanistan by focusing on and supporting work that draws on women’s skills, produces financial value and is still possible post the Taliban takeover. Despite deep and sustained attacks on women’s rights, security, and livelihoods, the project’s work with women in Afghanistan has been able to continue. To bolster this work, trade routes between Afghanistan and Pakistan are vital. International organisations should be working to maintain these trade routes to enable craft products to leave the country to generate income and NGOs should continue to support work that enables women to generate an income from their homes.