This article is supported by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives
November 19, 2023
By Nadeem Khan
Zainab and her family were forced to migrate to Pakistan when the Taliban assumed control over Afghanistan on August 15, 2021. When she arrived in Quetta’s Hazara Town, she could not continue her studies due to her status as an alien, and so thrust herself fully into the family trade of weaving carpets.
Carpet weaving is among one of the oldest skills and trades in the region. It is not formally taught. Rather, it is passed down orally or by example from one generation of a family to the next. Men teach their boys how to shear sheep and build looms while the mothers instruct their daughters on weaving skills and techniques from an early age.
Autumn and spring are shearing seasons. Once the wool has been collected, they are dyed with vibrant colors – in the past, women used natural extracts and pigments for this process but nowadays artificial dyes are often used due to abundance and availability.
The women use a spinning wheel or charkha to pull the wool into yarn, which they then weave into a wool net mounted onto the loom. By interlocking the warp and weft threads of different colours of yarn, they skillfully but painstakingly create arabesque designs that cannot be replicated a second time, regardless of the weaver’s skill.
To complete the carpet, the sides are sewn and the extra wool clipped or burned away to bring clarity to the design and enhance the colours. After a deep wash, the carpet is ready for trade. Handwoven carpets usually net a very high price point, especially in foreign markets. However, Zainab and her family do not have access to these opportunities and are open to exploitation because not only are they undocumented immigrants, they also belong to the threatened Hazara minority.
Yet still, she much prefers remaining in Quetta than being forced to return to a country under Taliban siege.
“We traveled from Afghanistan to Pakistan when the Taliban came. Girls were not allowed to leave their homes. There was no peace. We were barred from getting an education or finding employment,” Zainab recounts. Her household depends on weaving and selling carpets for subsistence. But with the Taliban banning women from engaging in trade, they faced starvation. “We do not want to go back to Afghanistan. Pakistan is great. We have freedom here. We can step outside our homes.”
Rahima is another Hazara Shia who with her two young daughters migrated to Pakistan two years ago. Like Zainab, she too settled in Hazara Town and is a carpet weaver by trade. Due to the threats faced by her community in Afghanistan, she dreads having to return to what she feels will be her certain doom.
“As soon as the Taliban arrived, I fled to Pakistan with my two girls. I wove carpets in Afghanistan, and that was how I was able to provide for my family,” she says. Although she has resumed this trade in the relative safety of Quetta, she laments the fact that her children are deprived of schooling. “But there is unrest in Afghanistan, and I do not want to return.”
According to the Global Terrorism Index 2023, Afghanistan remained the most impacted by terrorism for the fourth consecutive year despite a decrease in attacks and deaths. This fall, however, can be attributed to the fact that the index does not include acts of state repression and violence. With the Taliban assuming control over Afghanistan’s governance, any act of violence committed by them is no longer included.
The Islamic State (ISIS) and its affiliate groups active in Afghanistan have accepted responsibility for 115 attacks, which claimed 422 lives. Many of these attacks targeted the Shia Hazara community.
“There are activists and singers who came to Pakistan seeking sanctuary as they faced threats to their lives in Afghanistan. If they are sent back and something happens to them, the state of Pakistan will be solely responsible and no one else,” human rights advocate Jamila Kakar asserts. “Registered Afghans, that is those with PoR cards are also being hassled. The way the media is playing its role in highlighting their plight, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) should have also played its role.”
She also explained that the holding camps are deprived of basic facilities – one cannot even bear to spend one night in them. Women are delivering babies in these conditions in the midst of a cold winter, and children are being tied to vehicles with ropes.
“Is it possible for anyone to forget such treatment?” she posits. “Afghanistan, Pakistan and the UNHCR should have, according to the provisions of the Tripartite Agreement, played their respective role in forming a positive repatriation policy.”
Over 80,000 Afghan migrants have been deported through the Chaman border according to official figures. Meanwhile, human rights organizations in Afghanistan have expressed grave concerns over the threats faced by women, religious minorities and the Hazara community.