Union Minister for Textiles Smriti Irani, the actor Vidya Balan and several well-known Indian designers recently set off nationwide celebrations on National Handloom Day on August 7. They could be seen all over print and TV advertisements, resplendent in gorgeous handloom saris and textiles, promoting traditional Indian weaves. This is not a bad idea in itself.

This sector, where women weavers form over 70% of the total workforce, remains mired in discriminatory socio-economic traditions that isolate females from decision-making and treats even skilled female weavers as perpetual minors to be supervised by sons and husbands. Much needs to be done here to restore the centrality of women in this trade and ensure that a proper gender impact assessment is done.

Simply unaffordable

But as the beautiful and the powerful spoke about our great Indian textile traditions and #IWearHandloom trended on social media, few paused to wonder why (barring the North Eastern states) weavers from Pochampalli to Kanchipuram, Thanjavur, Chanderi, Paithan or Varanasi are wearing mill made fabric and polyester saris instead of donning the wonderful textiles that they produce?

Were they ever to be asked, they would tell you that their meagre incomes do not permit it.

While Indian textiles and garments thereof, and hundreds of varieties of cotton and silk saris are sold at mind boggling rates all over the globe, most of the profits are pocketed by the middlemen – the city-based salon wallahs and fancy retailers of fashion garments.

Thus, while the Defence Colony or South Mumbai fashion districts sell handloom fabrics and saris for lakhs, a study by the Centre for Handloom Information and Advocacy in Andhra Pradesh found that 55% of weavers’ families earn less than Rs 1,000 a month.

Thus, how can the women weavers afford their expensive weaves? They are not just costly but are also expensive to maintain as hand woven fabrics need careful and constant washing, repeated ironing, starching and still fray faster than saris and garments made with sturdier manmade yarn.

The Centre for Handloom Information and Policy Advocacy also found that a good 55% of weavers’ families live below the poverty line. Their major concern is hunger and a host of work-related chronic ailments (Tuberculosis, anemia, asthma, fading eye sight, various skin and bone related problems) that they cannot afford to get medical help for.

Most families of weavers are also heavily indebted to village money lenders, work hours are long (10 hours per day on an average), most (62%) women weavers are semi-literate or illiterate and the school drop out rate among girls in their families is high (20%).

These facts are seldom debated or highlighted by the handloom wearing good Samaritans who support annual seminars and exhibitions in Delhi or Mumbai or New York that promote and display exclusive specimens of handwoven or hand printed Indian textiles.

The pieces on display in these exhibitions come not from these impoverished women weavers with damaged lungs, they are acquired from prosperous traditional dealers, or erstwhile royals and members of eminent old families. Only a few pieces come from much-decorated master craftsmen, who are mostly male and the last in a line of a family of weavers.

Let us face it. To practice and promote crafts not as a means of earning a livelihood but as a goodwill gesture and a hobby, is basically a concept that has come to us from the West, where handcrafted and handwoven articles for daily use ceased to be produced after all production was mechanised.

In India, where there are still about three million hand operated looms, and weaving is an activity that sustains millions of families, it can by no stretch of imagination be treated as a hobby.

The patriarchal model

According to the 2013 Handloom Census, women weavers in India today number over 38 million. Most belong to traditional families of weavers, and ever since they were young girls, have been handling most of the pre-weaving work such as preparation of the yarn and the looms, dying and/or tying and dying yarn and fabric, and embellishing garments by hand embroidering them.

On occasion women will even sit at the loom and do the actual weaving, but there are still strong traditional taboos on their owning looms or sitting at it when they are menstruating, when they are considered to be unclean.

Thus, barring the North Eastern states, in the rest of India, a male centric craft and trade environ ordains that women remain at the periphery of the circles of power and authority and are isolated from activities like buying raw material or negotiating and selling their produce in the market, where men dominate.

At the end of the day, the produce of women weavers, like their sexuality, remains something that is most their own, yet most taken away and used by men as they see fit.

Even when the government Census representatives (mostly male) come to register the ownership of looms or the names of the primary workers in a family of weavers, it is nearly always the family males who get formally enlisted as the owners and primary workers in the area. The women are enlisted primarily as housewives who assist men, hence are secondary workers.

The caste factor

In India, it is caste that first creates a traditional community of craftsmen and women and caste that determines its linkages with the wider society and markets.

Since handicrafts have, since the medieval period at least, been associated with castes low down in the traditional chain, weavers or Tantis or Julahas have mostly been Dalit or from Other Backward Classes.

Given the utterly condemnable treatment meted out to lower castes, not unsurprisingly, in the North, a host of Julahas converted to Islam around the 12th century. But since Islam too had soon absorbed the caste wise discriminatory attitudes from the majority community, even within Islamic communities, elite groups of Sheikhs and Sayyads treat them as the depressed class of Pasmandas.

Since capital availability and control of trade have remained firmly deposited with men from higher castes and empowered groups through centuries, the power groups in trade and finance prefer to interact with craftsmen, and not their female counterparts.

By creating a gender-based discrimination within a wider caste based one, the patriarchal model sees to it that women weavers have little or no say in determining either the quality and designs, or pricing and availability of loans and source of raw material needed.

The presence of women weavers in the government’s department of handlooms or any trade negotiations (national or international) is also rare.

Constant deskilling

The modernisation of the handloom sector ironically pushes women even more firmly towards the margins. Their earlier participation in value addition is fast dwindling with professional city-based designers and mechanisation of looms. Women are now being given assembly line work in the garment industry instead.

This invisible but constant deskilling of women weavers with long professional backgrounds has enslaved them to longer work hours and mind numbing dull routines.

Increasing competition on keeping the cost low with countries like Bangladesh also leads to frequent downgrading of workplace facilities for women forced to work outside their homes for long hours.

Today, the new trade policies are accentuating the gender imbalance in the sector, and modernisation is pushing women weavers with fine skills into garment manufacturing. The National Foreign Trade Policy does not mention women specifically as workers requiring special treatment and protection from predators in the market place.

What the Minister for Textiles and her beautiful supporters with a deep understanding of our heritage and even deeper pockets need to realise is this: so long as the output of our women weavers continues to be trivialised, however beautiful or Indian our textiles, the weavers’ activity will only reinforce their powerlessness and boost the exploitative potential of this field for middlemen.

As a minister and as a woman Smriti Irani must try to understand the reality of a woman weaver’s life surrounded by unequal pay, allocation of the least interesting part of work, domestic battery and constant denigration. Equality requires not propaganda against inequality, but change – a new jurisprudence, a new relation between women and all laws that govern their lives and the marketplace.