Most week days, Fehmeeda Akhtar*, 25, leaves her home in the village of Naidkhai in Kashmir’s Bandipora district with a spring in her step as she heads out for a seven-hour shift at a carpet weaving centre nearby.

The complex design she and a friend are working on will take six months to complete. It is demanding work, requiring deep concentration and leaves no room for mistakes. But for Akhtar and the young women who work with her, this is their only opportunity to have uninhibited social interactions and gain some measure of financial autonomy.

“I am happy that I can support my husband by bringing money into the house,” she said. “Most importantly, this money will help me give my children a good education and secure their future ”

In Kashmir, the phenomenon of women working in the carpet industry is relatively new. It was driven by a hole in the labour market that started to emerge in 2002 and has picked up pace in the last decade.

For centuries, the hand-knotting carpet technique was a family occupation passed down through male members, as a source of both pride and livelihood. The technique came to Kashmir when a 15th-century ruler named Zain-ul-Abidin brought Persian craftsmen to the valley. The process is complex and weavers require extensive training to make 350 knots-600 knots per square inch by reading a coded script called the taleem.

A weaver reading the complex taleem, written in code only understood by trained artisans. The taleem consists of notations in a secret language that specify the number of knots and the colour for each row. Credit: Dr Kamini Gupta.

But since 2014, manufacturers have faced severe challenges. “Internationally, the rates of Kashmiri carpets have not risen but the cost of inputs like silk and wool has risen,” explained Haji Hafizullah, a former president of the Kashmir Carpet Manufacturers Union.

In addition, the difficulties of working in a conflict-hit region – internet and mobile shutdowns and local curfews – create logistical hurdles that have hampered the relationship between manufacturers and their customers outside Kashmir.

This has depressed real wages for carpet weavers. They now earn Rs 200-Rs 250 for a day’s worth of highly skilled work and the wages have not risen despite steady inflation.

As a consequence, the men associated with the work have started turning to alternatives. At the same time, wages for construction work have risen dramatically – Rs 500-Rs 700 a day.

This has led to men in rural areas leaving their traditional occupations of carpet weaving, shawl making and handicraft production to work at tasks such as carrying sand at construction sites and operating heavy equipment.

Handicraft manufacturers have been left with orders to fulfill and workshops are eager for workers.

Imtiyaz Aslam Wani, the co-owner of a family firm called Wani Charkha in Srinagar, said the increasingly high attrition rate of the male weavers had started becoming noticeable about 20 years ago.

“Shawls take months to complete, and it became difficult to fulfill orders on time when our weavers stopped showing up consistently,” he said.

Aslam said his uncle then came up with the plan to start recruiting and training rural women. “He was convinced that since they would not turn to manual labour on construction sites, they would be more dependable workers,” said Aslam.

Starting by training three or four women in 2002, Wani Charkha now employs 240 women in its workshops. Its success has led to other manufacturers also hiring women. The process of quickly training a new workforce for the job, a task usually done over many years within the family, led to an innovation in the process itself. Most notable is in the taleem used, which has been made easier to learn.

Two sisters work at a women-only weaving centre run by Wani Charka. Thirty women worked in a large room together on multiple looms. Credit: Kamini Gupta.

The government has also stepped in. The Indian Institute of Carpet Technology started micro-clusters – weaving centres with looms and supplies of raw material – where women weavers are trained and employed. Unlike the case with some other livelihood schemes, in the case of carpets and shawls, there is a ready market for the products.

For women like Akhtar, carpet-weaving at centres a few kilometres from their homes or on looms installed in their friend’s homes has provided them with a rare path to join the workforce and enjoy social independence in a traditionally conservative society.

Nusrat Bano*, a carpet weaving artisan working at a government cluster, said the women come to work after finishing the daily chores and meet friends and weave together. “You know, some girls have even paid for their wedding from the money they earned here,” she said.

As part of our research studying the challenges faced by small manufacturers and artisans in the carpet-weaving industry, we are looking for ways to improve the wages for all weavers, such as through easier access to credit and international markets for small manufacturers.

In the meantime, recruiting women into carpet and shawl weaving work could be a great way to keep the industry afloat in Kashmir and increase women’s participation in paid work.

From Persian notations to denote colour and the number of knots in the taleem, some manufacturers now use numerals and colours, pictured below, that are easier to train a new workforce in. Credit: Kamini Gupta.

Unlike some handicraft production that is done in isolation at home, shawl and carpet weaving requires women to go to a weaving centre or a common site in the village, which as professor Alice Evans argues, can be more emancipatory than work done within the home and family.

While in the long-term, it is important to work towards addressing deep-rooted factors such as limited physical mobility and the need for flexible work hours that make women accept work at lower wages than men, involving them in carpet and shawl production seems like a win-win right now.

Credit: Kamini Gupta.

It helps manufacturers looking for dependable high-skilled labour, women seeking to work outside their home in socially-approved spaces and the government looking to promote women’s employment and business activity.

With female labour force participation at a low of 19% in India – according to the World Bank’s estimates – every measure counts.

“I had never worked before I came to this training center,” said Akhtar. “At the end of the six months, to see the carpet finished and that we made it is a great feeling.”

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

Kamini Gupta is a social scientist and Lecturer at King’s College London.

Mir Autif Mohammad is an Academic Associate at IIM Bangalore in the Strategy Area.

This article is based on field-work carried out as part of an Economic and Social Research Council-Indian Council of Social Science Research funded grant to study the ‘Enablers and Obstacles to UK-India Trade’.