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

MDX Post-doctoral research fellow Dr Zahra Hussain analyses the experiences of craftswomen in South Asia during lockdown, part of the Culture and Conflict project at the LSE-based Gender, Justice and Security hub.

MDX Post-doctoral research fellow Dr Zahra Hussain analyses the experiences of craftswomen in South Asia during lockdown, part of the Culture and Conflict project at the LSE-based Gender, Justice and Security hub.

The COVID-19 pandemic, resultant lockdowns, and associated issues have affected industries across the globe. Along with other sectors, high street retail has incurred major losses. Informal businesses like craftspeople, especially in the Global South, have remained under-reported, however. In this piece, as part of the ‘Culture and Conflict’ project in the transformation and empowerment stream of the Gender Justice and Security hub based at London School of Economics, I seek to explore the experiences of craftswomen in South Asia in the early months of the COVID-19 lockdown (May and June 2020).

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.

Understanding how lockdown affects craftwomen’s practice of making

The project conducted an online survey to understand how lockdown affects craftwomen’s practice of making, and where craftswomen place “craft-making” in an uncertain future. In this piece, I particularly focus on the ways in which resilience can be traced and articulated from the responses of 148 craftswomen across South Asia. 

“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

The word ‘resilience’ is an elastic term that has been deployed and adapted by various disciplines in complex ways over the past twenty years. The concept of resilience underpins the science of disaster governance and global disaster policy, extending to 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). Discussion on resilience is relevant both in terms of its assessment as a top-down project or a bottom-up approach, and around understanding how life is held together in conditions of crisis and fragility.

In ‘The Resilient Subject’ (2012), Dr Kay Aranda and health scholar colleagues propose three categories of resilience: 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, with the implication 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. Using these distinctions, indigenous knowledge is a resource practised and cultivated over centuries, in a continuous process of evolution and adaptation.

Findings from the survey

To understand the position of craftswomen within the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, I see Aranda et al’s three kinds of resilience overlapping and occurring simultaneously. The overlapping of different senses of resilience can be seen as a process in crafting – a forward movement in experimentation as people use their skills, materials, and techniques to engage with the context. It involves their ability to make decisions for themselves and adapt their practices to live on in challenging times. 

A variety of factors contributed to the challenges faced by craftswomen in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. Approximately 87% of respondents reported curtailment in their ability to sell their craft products, as 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 5 suits daily, but now I am only doing 2 to 3 suits and sometimes there are no orders.”

Some women have analysed the market itself. Haseeba in Saidu Sharif, Swat observed, “Businesses are not doing well and people are careful with their money. They only buy what is necessary”. 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 the decrease in tourism as a major factor for reduced sales because they primarily target visitors to their city. In Jammu and Kashmir, the lockdown further restricted their already constrained movement and mobility. Saira Tabassum from Bufliaz in the region’s Poonch district 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, therefore, multiple factors have affected the production and sale of craft products. 

Exploring the importance of craft-making for women and giving insight into their resilience

Within this context, a few survey questions were targeted at understanding how craft-making practice was affected by the pandemic: to explore the importance of craft-making for women and give insight into their resilience, in the sense of coping with and making do 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 done throughout the year, and for some every day, intrinsic to their daily life. It has been noted that practices of everyday life contribute to identity formation and play an integral role in maintaining sense of self, cohesion, and belonging. 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 around her, 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” as they sat together carpet-making. However, it is important to note that the ability to work on crafts has only been afforded to those based at home; those working in factories or vocational centres have been unable to continue with their crafts. 

Around 34% of craftswomen surveyed said that they keep themselves engaged in order to not think about the pandemic, 29% said that they do not feel like craft-making due to the pandemic, and 16% indicated that they are making more craft than usual. 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 to sell 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. 

These different ways of coping with the pandemic suggest that some craftswomen who continue to work may be deemed resilient, whilst others who stop working may not be considered so resilient. However, deeper analysis tells a different story. The survey responses are inconsistent, but in each case craftswomen have used whatever is at hand (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). 

Craftmaking proved a welcome distraction in a dire situation

For some, craftmaking proved a welcome distraction in a 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”, said Aliya from 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, Aranda et al’s three categories of resilience can be traced in women’s ability to take informed decisions for continuing or discontinuing craft-making based on their analysis for tackling uncertain conditions. 

These insights show 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, 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. The craftswomen surveyed described feelings of being locked in, stuck in an unfavourable situation, and unable to foresee the future. To 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 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 can 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 on ways our interventions can strengthen the resilience of craftswomen in times of restricted mobility, be it during pandemics, conflicts or disasters.

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