Outlining the challenges of the large female work-force in the handloom industry
5 minutes read
The humdrum rhythms of the machine and the colours on the tapestry are often used as symbols for the immaterial wealth harbored by the nation. Wearing a handloom is a matter of pride. The beauty of the intricate patterns resonates with customers worldwide, who invest large amounts of money to get their hands on 8 meters of that fabric. On National Handloom Day (August 7th), one would hopefully expect that the skilled hands behind these works of wonder are getting applauded and the much-needed monetary compensation. With female politicians and fashion designers boldly promoting this traditional artform, one would hope that 72% of percent of the women involved are getting their due. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
One of the oldest and largest cottage industries, the Indian handloom industry has a global stance. Appreciated for its weaving, spinning, and printing, almost every state of India has a unique handloom product to call theirs – Phulkari from Punjab, Chanderi from Madhya Pradesh, Ikats from Andhra Pradesh, Tie and Die from Rajasthan and Gujarat, Daccai from West Bengal, Brocade from Benares or Jacquard from Uttar Pradesh, and plethora of traditional garments from the North-East – which boast of India’s diverse craftsmanship. The industry offers a variety of products categorized under wearables (for instance, the ‘gamcha’ and ‘mekhla-chadar’, a traditional Assamese dress, sarees, shirts, pants, sarong, shawls) and non-wearables (accessories, upholstery, etc.)
A vast majority of the handlooms are located in the North-Eastern region of India, which accounts for nearly 65.2% of the total handlooms that are operational in the country. Among the North-Eastern states, Assam is the leading state, accounting for 46.8% of the total handlooms in the country. The other important states are West Bengal (12.9%), Manipur (8%), Tamil Nadu (6.5%), and Tripura (5.8%). The operations of this industry are primarily household-based.
Being a home-based industry, it is one the largest unorganized economic activities and provides employment directly and indirectly to over 26.73 lakh weavers. 89% account for adult workers among which over 70% are women.
Most of the female workers are located in rural areas while a relatively higher proportion of male workers are located in the urban areas. Despite their large numbers, these women are still discriminated against due to socio-economic traditions. Society continues underestimating their skill and isolating them from leadership roles.
Bouts of despair come to the surface when one finds out that although their crafts are sold at lakhs of rupees, a good 55% of weavers’ families live below the poverty line (as per the Centre for Handloom Information and Policy Advocacy), with humongous debts to money lenders. Women get the shorter end of the stick due to their social positioning. About 62% of women weavers are semi-literate or illiterate, with a high dropout rate among school-going girls. Belonging to the traditional family of weavers, these girls start young, handling most of the pre-weaving work. They dabble in preparation of the yarn and the looms, tying and dyeing the yarn and the fabric, and embellishing garments by hand embroidering them. The profits they earn are hoarded by the middlemen as they earn less than Rs. 1k – 5k per month, barring their chances of socio-economic mobility from a young age.
Even during census surveys, it is almost always the male members of the family who are enlisted as the primary workers of owners of their looms, while the women, despite their massive participation, are seen as secondary workers – as housewives who are assistants to their husbands. Most of the lush pieces, except for a select few made by male master weavers who are last in the family line, are made by the women. The presence of women weavers in the government department of handlooms or any trade negotiation is also rare. Their major concern is hunger and a host of work-related chronic ailments like tuberculosis, anemia, asthma, fading eyesight and various skin and bone-related problems.
They are discriminated against on various interstices. Strong traditional taboos still persist when it comes to owning or sitting on a loom for a woman who is menstruating. Except for the North-Eastern states, this industry has the facade of being a male-centric one in the rest of India. Women are pushed to the margins, where men assume power and authority, barring the former from activities like buying raw material or negotiating and selling their produce in the market. Caste also plays a big factor in the equation. Associated with the lower castes, weavers or Tantis or Julahas have mostly been Dalit or from Other Backward Classes. In the 12th Century when a host of Julahas converted to Islam, the same discriminatory attitude was retained. As even within Islamic communities, elite groups of Sheikhs and Sayyads treated them as the depressed class of Pasmandas.
However, a sliver of hope can be held unto when considering the North-Eastern handloom Industry. This sector has indeed boosted employment opportunities for rural tribal women, giving them a source of livelihood. The Government and NGOs are reported to have actively supported the women to construct new business ventures through Self-Help Groups and the like. This has helped them upskill themselves on all fronts, enhancing their participation in the decision-making process and the ability to achieve more control. However, women from the North East also hold a certain cultural freedom that is not available to the rest of the womenfolk in the country.
The government has made an attempt to recognize their craft and contribution. The Kamaladevi Chattopadhya National Awards awarded to women weavers (instituted in 2017), grant of Mudra loans which would and the two MoUs signed by the Ministry of Textiles and National Backward Classes Finance & Development Corporation under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment with the objective of increasing earnings of millions of women handloom weavers and artisans belonging to backward classes by undertaking a large number of cluster development projects are a few steps.
Nonetheless, the picture is constituted by threads of both hope and despair, where the latter has been predominant due to the pandemic. While no system is perfect, there should be an attempt to increase the threads of hope – hope that intertwines to create a fabric so timeless that it is carried upon from one generation to another, withstanding the hurdles of time.