Blog – Sustainability Lies at the Grassroot Level

By Mehr Husain
June 8, 2020

It is no secret that Pakistan’s heritage is at risk of being lost in time. A major factor for the lack of interest on the part of the State and society is the ailing economy that has plagued Pakistan for decades. Spending or investing money anything remotely linked to culture is viewed as a privilege only few can afford and that too to while away time. This is not to say there have not been efforts in restoring heritage – architectural sites in particular. Yet the issue remains about making culture sustainable to encourage more investment. What action has been taken must be lauded but the question still stays the same – what sustainable impact does the conservation of culture and heritage, craft in particular have for Pakistan especially on a mass level where the majority of the people are in rural areas?

Traditionally, Pakistani women have been at the forefront when it has come to preservation and promotion of local culture. Women are physically and financially attached to their heritage, craft in particular. Whether it is a folk story embroidered onto a shawl or a set of crocheted cushions sold to an urban client, it is the role of the female artisan that cannot be denied in preserving culture in the form of a national identity or a larger sustainable model.

However, this poses two issues – one the implication that their work is passed on as merely ‘handicraft’ that is used as hollow symbolism. The second, that it cannot be turned into a viable strategy to tackle socio-economic issues such as gender inequality and poverty or be marketed as a business. Both of these are wrong.

Post Partition till the late 1970s Pakistan was in no hurry to establish a cultural identity for itself. With influences from Iran and Afghanistan (both countries themselves heavily westernised and progressive) plus the impact of the Hippie Trail, Pakistani culture was a mixture of colonialism and borrowed regional and western elements. It was only the 1980s onwards that local craft began appearing as ‘couture’ but it catered to the urban regions. But they also proved that what is seen as ‘symbolic representation’ is heavy with history and offers huge potential for exploration.

Homegrown organisations have actively taken the hollowly termed ‘handicraft’ and made it into social business that went beyond the realm of fashion, offering it as a form of identity for lower socio-economic female artisans. This connects several elements – female empowerment, gender equality and sustainability. Other organisations such as Kaarvan have taken those elements to a new height weaving in technology via digital literacy and actively pursuing advocacy by protecting artisans’ rights by eliminating exploitation at the hands of middlemen.

In today’s time with Covid-19 showing no signs of slowing down Pakistan’s industries all across the board are suffering. The pandemic has limited consumerism, staggering sales and market growth. The impact this has had on the environment cannot be denied as Nature has stepped forth to reclaim her territory. This in turn, has called for sustainability, something that social enterprises and economic empowerment programs were already actively pursuing. If anything, now is the time to look to at the grassroot level and understand how a particular way of living can be preserved but also economically empowered. In this respect, the future literally lies in the hands of the rural based, female artisan. It is time we acknowledge their hand in the Pakistan Economy.