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Locked down but unlocked: How online retail may preserve Bangladesh’s Jamdani heritage craft

[By Rawshon Akhter and Mohammad Sahid Ullah]

Haji Razzaque, an artisanal broker of around 50 years, shares his struggles of selling the products from Bangladesh’s Jamdani weavers, purveyors of a largely female-driven craft. He speaks of how, as a young boy, he would spend three to four hours every Friday morning at the Jamdani haat (bazaar). Right after the traditional Muslim Fazar prayer, he would head to the marketplace where over 500 Jamdani weavers, brokers, and customers from different areas would gather, some 20 km from the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. Since the Corona lockdown, the attendance at the market has dwindled to barely half that number. Consequently, Haji too, has lost his earnings.

Tahura, a weaver of Jamdani sharees, has been forced to shut down her home-based handloom unit due to a significant decline in demand over the past six months. The sharee is among the most labour-intensive forms of handloom-weaving, practiced in this region for centuries, and constitutes part of Bangladesh’s rich textile heritage. UNESCO recognized Jamdani as an intangible cultural heritage in 2013.

Festivals like Pohela Boishak (Bengali New Year celebrated on April 14th), Eid (important Muslim religious festival), and Durga puja (a Hindu religious festival) are the key seasons for sales of these fabrics and garments in Bangladesh. Most middle-class women city dwellers dream of having a Jamdani sharee – as a festival gift. However, this year weavers and sellers missed these three festive events for the first time due to the Covid lockdown.

The latest Handloom Census 2018 (preliminary report) of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) estimates that weavers produce about 2,000 Jamdani sharees per week. Several villages on the eastern side of the river Shitalakkhya, including Noapara, Rupshi, Moikuli, Khadun, Pobonkul, Murgakul, and Borab in Rupganj under Narayanganj district are known as the hub of Jamdani weaving and supply to markets both at home and abroad.

Image credit: Armanaziz / Wikimedia

Though the Jamdani artisans are scattered in different places in the country and a small portion in West Bengal in India, most of them live in the Rupganj and Narayanganj regions, and nearly 15,000 people from 3,000 families are engaged in the trade. The price of sharees ranges between Tk 5,000 and Tk 40,000 (ca. 59-472 USD). Specially made sharees can cost as much as Tk 150,000 (ca. 1799 USD).

Bangladesh Handloom Board (2018) data shows that the industry has witnessed a drastic fall in recent years, and the number of handlooms has declined by about 45% in 15 years. The total number of workers also fell to 301,757 (133,444 male and 168,313 female workers) from 888,115 workers in 2003. In 1990, the number was over one million.

Faria Sharmin and Sharif Tousif Hossain (2020), scholars from Stamford University Bangladesh and Sonia Ashmore (2018), an expert in handloom weaving industry and author of ‘Muslin,’ have documented that there are around 500 master weavers actively involved in Jamdani production activities. These master weavers have 6,500 working looms in total and the same number of weavers working as labourers.

Both studies indicate that this craft is facing extinction. Many of the artisans are abandoning this profession due to numerous obstacles, including being paid barely minimum wages (usually less than Tk 500 – ca. 5.90 USD – for a Tk 2,000 sharee) despite the back-breaking labour of their unique craftsmanship. These weavers had no direct or limited contact with the customers because they often work as bonded labourers under the traditional Jamdani weaving system. Fashion designers also depended on mahajans or wholesalers to buy their products. The COVID-19 crisis has made matters worse.

Income loss to weavers, production, and drop in sales of garments and textiles due to the crisis have resulted in a sharp rise in unemployment among weavers. To keep sales alive, many of these small entrepreneurs and weavers have started to sell these products online. According to the Women and E-commerce Forum (WE), more than 500 women have started small and home-based entrepreneurial businesses selling sharees, and other Jamdani yarn made garments like fatua and Panjabi (for men), and kamij (for women)via online platforms.

WE insiders confirmed to us that during September and the first half of October, Jamdani items sold Tk 5 million (close to 60.000 USD) worth across the country through such platforms. WE started in 2018, and within two years, members and followers on Facebook have already reached around a million customers. WE founding member Kakloy Russell Talokder, now a moderator and owner of Kakoly’s Attire, an online fashion platform solely dedicated to selling Jamdani, admits that there has been a five to ten-fold increase in sales through WE. When we interviewed her she stated: “The main reason is that during COVID-19 middle-class people started to depend on local Bangladeshi products through online sales”.

Image credit: Kamrul.vb / Wikimedia

Although artisans and their agents (buyers) missed the sales events for the first time in Bangladesh history due to the pandemic, Ms. Talukder says:   

“Online sales of Jamdani have soared recently, creating a new window of opportunities for the traders. […] Jamdani weavers have got a new life in recent years as entrepreneurs who sell Jamdani online. It helped them survive amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The boost received from online sales has helped revive Jamdani sales and the production as well. Mr. Kamal Hossain, the owner of a Dhakaiaa Jamdani, Lalkhanbazar, Chottogram branch, explained to us that online sales have increased recently. His centre sells around 20-30 sharees every week – in contrast to only 5-10 until last September. Earlier, he sourced the Jamdani collection through brokers from Rupganj but now he purchases these goods directly from handloom owners.

Kakoly Russell Talokder points out that online sales can be an excellent tool for promoting Jamdani, adding that Facebook plays a significant role here as about 33 million Facebook users exist in Bangladesh. She notes that there is very little information on the craft online, and as more and more individuals and organizations talk about Jamdani in these online forums, the more it will spread. According to her, the Jamdani sharee is not adequately promoted in the global market. There are over 30 million Bangla speaking people living overseas. “We could not reach our cultural treasure to them,” she laments.

However, the Textile Today (2017) reports that the demand for quality Jamdani Sarees has increased exponentially over the years, at home and abroad, particularly across the Bangladeshi diaspora in the West. Bangladesh received the Geographical Indication (GI) status for the Jamdani sharee in 2016, defined by the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) as:     

“indications which identify a good as originating in the territory of a Member, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographical origin.”

Many entrepreneurs (WE members) hint that these recognitions will lead to further direct investment in production alongside ecommerce, creating a new turn in Jamdani waving. Adding to this, Ms. Talokder believes that “many people are used to the comfort and benefit of ordering online. This trend will continue and even expand in parts of Bangladesh. Thus, women, weavers do not need to be worried about their low pay.”

Haji Razzaque is also hopeful that increasing demand through sales can boost weavers’ income. However, Tahura, who was trained in Jamdani weaving by her father at a young age, does not want to engage her 12-year daughter in this hard, low-paid work. She doubts that increased online sales may be sufficient to motivate weavers to stick with the craft.

However, if the numbers cited by WE are any indication, coupled with the push for more online engagement among Handloom owners and retailers, there is a glimmer of hope that these new digital forums can help sustain this craft and possibly encourage young people from weaving families to preserve their heritage. It remains to be seen whether the interest and momentum to go online, provided by the COVID-19 crisis, will be sustained in the long term.

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Research that hurts – On the practice of care in fieldwork

[By Rawshon Akhter]

Many ethical concerns connected to fieldwork are already a matter of established and routinized practice. For example, the privacy of respondents is protected by anonymizing their identity. In recent decades, we have further pushed these methodological norms. Ethnographers grapple with their legacy of an extractive culture, making a compelling case for ethical action: to incorporate the rights of respondents in the sharing of the benefits (monetary and non-monetary) and the responsibilities of researchers towards their respondents.

In monetary terms, there is a need to address intellectual property rights of respondents to help in our research innovations. For example, Farnsworth reported that out of 119 drugs produced from extracting chemical components from plants, 74% have their use in traditional medicine which isn’t protected sufficiently, often due to their oral knowledge cultures. The non-monetary angle is even less attended to in terms of giving back to the community through supportive mechanisms. This is often overlooked, especially when it comes to trauma and related emotional risks of the respondents.

A report by Action Aid Bangladesh noted that women respondents during in-depth interviews usually become emotional when they share personal stories, especially given that sexual abuse is often part of these narratives. Women in these contexts also tend to hesitate to share stories of abuse, fearing reprisals from employers including job loss, or stigma and harassment from co-workers. I recall an incident that took place during fieldwork I was doing for another project:  a divorced mother of three young daughters became faint when she recounted her experience of domestic abuse meted out to her for failing to give birth to a male child. I had to call for help as she was close to collapsing.

Before going into the field, I think we researchers need to map out the potential affective risks of the study, especially the psychological stress experienced by respondents, and outline a plan to address them. The goal should be to enhance the wellbeing of our respondents. Granted, this is no easy task. Researchers are not psychologists nor social workers. However, they may find themselves playing these roles unconsciously as they try to be of help to their respondents. After all, fieldwork is about relationship building.

In the FemLab.Co project, we anticipate such encounters as we are dealing with a group that is likely to be burdened with numerous vulnerabilities. Out of a total of 4.1 million workers from the readymade garments sector in Bangladesh, one-third are aged between 16 and 20, and are new entrants to urban modernity. Many of them are illiterate (35%) migrants from villages with no formal qualifications and little awareness of the working conditions in the industry, including the hazards in a city (e.g., transport and housing), industrial life (physical safety at the workplace), and harassment (gender-based violence) within factories and security (safe commute to and from the workplace). Low wages (193$ minimum monthly payment in 2018), violence, abuse and harassment (mostly sexual) are regular phenomena in the lives of garment workers.

Image credit: Wallpaper Flare

Research on this subject (e.g., Action Aid in Bangladesh, 2019, CPD working paper, 2018) reveals that around 70-80 percent female garment workers either experience or witness abuse at work. They are subjected to at least one type of harassment and abuse such as (a) having been sexually harassed; (b) molested or assaulted while working; (c) having been subjected to extreme verbal abuse at work; and, (d) having seen a factory manager or supervisor abuse and harass other women. Due to the dearth of bargaining agencies or worker unions (only around 10 percent factories are unionised) to protect their rights and the fear of further harassment or losing the job, most avoid disclosing these events. Harassment and abuse in the workplace and outside have traumatised these women workers. Due to their plight, many of them might feel apprehensive about sharing their experiences.

This requires psychological support during the interviews. In qualitative interview design, we researchers need to draw on counselling support when engaging with such vulnerable populations. It is necessary to explore the involvement of psychologists and experienced counsellors, possibly during the interview, which might help respondents to minimise their trauma. Given that such participants are from a disadvantaged section of society and may feel uncomfortable sharing their grievances due to strong social stigma against mental health issues, we need to repackage such counselling, perhaps as ‘friendship networks’ that could be acceptable in these contexts.

Often these traumas are made worse by the choice of the interview location. To avoid this kind of risk, we need to get the interviewees away from their home. This continues to serve as a major challenge in fieldwork. One strategy can be to provide a community building project where the women’s family can be supportive, allowing for more autonomy of movement and privacy. Through the creation of such safe spaces, we can unwrap the layered issues of exploitation and violence, while also developing strategies of resilience.

I have noticed that rapport building through regular telephone calls or mobile chatting in advance of field study can be an advantage to building an understanding of respondents, so we can tailor our questions in ways that can reduce the trauma. Digital tools clearly can be leveraged to benefit our respondents as it can provide more privacy and freedom to express themselves to us. However, we cannot be naïve about their communicative data, which if leaked into the wrong hands, can compromise the well-being of our participants, who are already in a vulnerable position.

The fact is that in studying vulnerable populations, researchers have to step out of their academic mentality and look at their respondents beyond the informant paradigm – to people who require more nurturing and empowering networks, knowledge, and possible pathways to enable them to improve their social conditions.