The months of February and March are especially hectic for handloom workers in Assam as April (Bohag) is the month that marks the beginning of the Assamese New Year. But this year, there have been no celebrations. The markets that are usually full of mekhela sadors, gamosas, dokhonas, and other handloom products are all closed. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the handloom industry in Assam is facing an unprecedented crisis. And most weavers fear the worst – that they will never recover from this.
The model that many weavers in Assam follow is that of home-based weaving. They weave in their spare time in their homes. And unsurprisingly, most of these weavers are women, especially in rural areas. Around 77.94 percent of the total are women weavers in Assam. It is a common sight to see women working on their taant xaals (looms) in the afternoon. In the past, weaving was seen as a desirable quality for a girl to get married. The daughter-in-law of the family was expected to weave gamosas and bihuwaan (new gamosas that are gifted to family and relatives in Bihu) during Bohag Bihu. This is still very much in existence in rural Assam. Wearing new hand-woven clothes in Bohag Bihu is part of Assam’s culture. As such, most women are taught to weave in Assam’s rural areas.
While some of them are non-commercial weavers and weave only for personal consumption, most of them use weaving as a source of income. The average annual income from handloom activities for weavers ranges around Rs. 20000-30000. However, the composition of women weavers drastically changes in the commercial setting like in most jobs. Women constitute only 49.10 percent of the total weavers in Sualkuchi – the commercial weaving centre in Assam. The slightly greater proportion of male weavers in Sualkuchi highlight the domesticated role of weaving for women. It is difficult for them to leave their homes and come out to work. Even of the total women weavers, very few have the independence and choice to make decisions regarding the production or investment. There is also a huge gap of ownership indicating biased power relations as well as control over income and assets.
However, in spite of these shortcomings, most weavers see weaving as an empowering activity. They might not earn as much as they would have wanted to, but for many, the money they earn from weaving does not just have financial value. This income is rooted in the socio-cultural context of Assamese society.
In interior villages of Assam where patriarchal relationships within the family still go unchallenged, apart from their regular household work, women either work in the fields or looms. This is particularly the case for most married women. Therefore, they have limited scope to earn money and be financially independent. Most of them have to ask their husbands for money and therefore, weaving is their only source of income.
“I can spend the money that I earn from weaving on my personal stuff. It feels good to have some money in hand,” says Radha, a weaver from Chaygaon village. Her words are resonated by Kabita, a weaver from Pathshala, who says that weaving is the only way she can earn money. “We are village women, we do not have much education and cannot do jobs like urban women. We can earn money from weaving only.“
There are many like Radha and Kabita who think similarly. Weaving for them is a means of earning money, an act that gives them a little bit of mobility and independence. Both scholars and activists also argue that women’s involvement in micro-entrepreneurial activities has led to greater independence and mobility.
Anurita Pathak Hazarika, Program Director of North East Network (NEN) – a non-governmental organization (NGO) that has been working with women in the north-east for more than twenty years, echoes the sentiment. Ms. Pathak Hazarika says that weaving has been a way for women in villages to earn money as well as fight domestic violence. NEN works with women who have been victims of domestic violence and encourages them to fight it with economic independence.
“We encourage women who are victims of domestic violence to start weaving commercially. It gives them an impetus to fight against the abuse that they face,” says Ms. Pathak Hazarika.
Women who have access to their own income become less tolerant to abuse. The fact that they can earn money, even if it is not much, gives them the confidence to stand up to violence in their homes. At the same time, many of them weave together, and this gives them the initiative to come together. It gives them a feeling of a collective, a platform for solidarity that can help in easing their pain and sharing feelings.
But in a world that is marred with COVID-19, India has been in a lockdown and the practice of physical distancing is in practice. This has severely impacted these women weavers who have lost their livelihood and space of solidarity. They have not just lost their source of income but also a zone of comfort. The time that they spend weaving together allows them to come out of their daily lives and talk to each other. As such, their collective spaces are shrinking.
Thus, the blow of COVID-19 has been double-edged for these women weavers from Assam – it is economic as well as social. The identity and space that these weavers had earned through their hard work are both at risk. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the vulnerabilities of our society – more women are at risk of losing their jobs. Domestic violence against women all over the world has increased. Keeping this in mind, the weavers of Assam are vulnerable to lose everything that they have earned before – a source of their income as well as a source of their freedom.
Rituparna Patgiri is a doctoral student at the Centre for the Studies in Social Systems (CSSS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). She is interested in issues of culture and gender and has earlier written for The Assam Tribune, The Sentinel, Youth ki Awaaz, Women’s Web, Caleidoscope, India Development Review and Indian Cultural Forum. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Ritwika Patgiri is a Research Scholar in the Faculty of Economics, South Asian University (SAU). Her research interest lies in the areas of gender and economics. She has earlier written for The Sentinel, Times of Assam, In Plainspeak, Women’s Web, Caleidoscope, India Development Review and Indian Cultural Forum. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.
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