Kandahar Treasure gives Afghan women chance to earn money within the safety of societal rules, but it now struggles

In the 11 years that Rangina Hamidi has been bringing textiles with the traditional khamak embroidery created by women in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan to the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, a lot has happened.

Her father, mayor of Kandahar City, was assassinated in 2011 by a suicide bomber.

Expressing a loss of hope for improvements in the country after that, Hamidi, who has met with Afghan presidents and been interviewed by international news media both on the status of Afghanistan and on the economic advancement of women, returned to Virginia as her base.

But then the withdrawal of the U.S. military at the end of 2014 led to a collapse of the markets for the business she founded, Kandahar Treasure.

Rangina Hamidi. (Courtesy of the International Folk Art Alliance)
Rangina Hamidi. (Courtesy of the International Folk Art Alliance)

“I live here now,” Hamidi emailed from Kandahar. “With the markets drying up and the local management team being unable to expand further, I had to come back to (Kandahar Treasure) to make it survive!”

It’s a discouraging setback for a dream she turned into reality, drawing upon the area’s traditional embroidery to form an economic development project that would give women a source of income along with a bit of self-empowerment within the boundaries of the culture.

This is the kind of economic development, especially among women, that is encouraged by the International Folk Art Market|Santa Fe. It is bringing more than 180 artists from 60 countries who will display their wares next weekend on Museum Hill. The festivities open with a procession of artists 6 p.m. Thursday at the Plaza, followed by music from Mali by Mamadou Kelly.

While the market is replete with stories from countries struggling to expand their economic base, market officials have long encouraged shoppers not to look at it as charity, but as a chance to enjoy and buy beautiful work by accomplished artists. Hamidi’s Kandahar Treasure will be in booth 31.

An Afghan woman is surrounded by children as she sews for Kandahar Treasure in her home. (Courtesy of Rangina Hamidi)
An Afghan woman is surrounded by children as she sews for Kandahar Treasure in her home. (Courtesy of Rangina Hamidi)

‘A safe place’

Hamidi herself does not stitch the embroidery. She fled Soviet-occupied Afghanistan as a small child with her family, first to Pakistan and then to Virginia, where she was educated.

But she returned to the country of her birth in 2003 after the arrival of the U.S. military; with hopes for stability and progress, she formed Kandahar Treasure. First operated as a Women’s Income Generation Project for Afghans for Civil Society, Kandahar Treasure was transformed into a for-profit business intended to be self-sustaining.

But it’s run into roadblocks.

“With the reduction in aid from the international community and the local/national economy hitting a low, many people (men and women) are jobless and desperate for opportunities to earn a living for their families,” Hamidi wrote in an email about the current situation in Afghanistan. “Many families are illegally sending their young sons abroad (taking the risk of being killed) to have a source of income for themselves.

“So we are in a dire economic situation while our security is still unstable.”

One example of that insecurity hit close to home yet again: last October, Hamidi’s friend who worked in the United Nations office in Afghanistan was assassinated on her way in to work, said Mary Lutrell, a Santa Fe author who is working on a book with Hamidi and was visiting her at the time. The killing caused Lutrell to leave Afghanistan two days earlier than planned.

“These women take their lives in their hands every time they come to work,” Lutrell said. While most artisans work out of their homes, some staff do report to a Kandahar Treasure office, which provides them transportation to and from home, she said.

They take off their burqas once they enter the female-only workshop, which also provides lunch and a prayer room. “She has created a safe place that honors the way men believe women should be treated,” Lutrell said of Hamidi.

Afghan women embroider fabrics for Kandahar Treasure. (Courtesy of Rangina Hamidi)
Afghan women embroider fabrics for Kandahar Treasure. (Courtesy of Rangina Hamidi)

‘No hindrance’

But fewer of the women are working these days.

Despite donations of about $10,000 from family and friends last fall to keep the business afloat, “we have cut down expenses drastically here just to make ends meet!” Hamidi wrote. “The most painful one being putting our 300 women artisans on call at the moment.”

Some 200 women still are getting work orders through Kandahar Treasure, but those other 300 are awaiting enough orders to get back to work, she said.

Such work can be key for a family’s survival, said Lutrell, who visited one family whose seven daughters produced embroidery that was “a really important contributor to the family eating,” she said. Many households had fathers who were killed in the war, leaving other family members to find a way to support themselves, Lutrell added.

The silk-thread embroidery itself dates back centuries, using forms such as flowers, trees and leaves, as well as intricate geometric patterns common in Islamic art.

Through years of war, though, fewer and fewer women had the time and resources to learn and practice the art.

“What (Kandahar Treasure) has done is revive traditional designs that were lost during the years of conflicts and wars, and we continue to expand our designing capabilities and surprise our customers with new designs,” Hamidi wrote.

Despite what we hear in the West about cultural limitations on women’s activities in traditional Muslim cultures, Hamidi said there is “absolutely NO hindrance” on women doing the home-based work.

“In fact, many families (husbands, fathers) support this work as it is very much in line with their culture and traditions,” she added.

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