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Carpet weaving provides vital income for women

At first sight, this large room in the town of Barzan in the northern Iraqi governorate of Arbil could pass for a primitive gymnasium. There's the same air of hushed concentration, the cautious precision. And then there are the tall metal frames, lined in pairs like parallel bars. "You have be strong to do this work", Rahan Barzani, told IRIN. "That's why almost everybody here is under 35." But she and her 20 colleagues, all women, are not athletes. They're weavers, employees of one of northern Iraq's half a dozen privately owned carpet factories. The factory was the brainchild of Mohamed Saadik Barzani who, like many of the inhabitants in this remote region three hours northeast of Dahuk, had fled to Iran in 1975 to avoid Saddam Hussein's armies. He returned in 1991 to a scene of utter devastation. The towns of Barzan and Bila, heartland of the rebellious Barzani-controlled Kurdistan Democracy Party, had long borne the brunt of Baathist oppression. Above all, the 1983 execution of 8,000 Barzani men and boys left a large number of widows and orphans. Thirteen years after it was set up, the carpet factory remains faithful to its original intention - to provide a means of income to fatherless or husbandless women. "There's only one woman here who has a working man in her immediate family, and that's the cleaner," joked Burak Barzani. "For almost everybody else here, the wages we get are all we have to get by on," she told IRIN. "Apart from a few who work as cleaners, none of the other women around here work," added Burak's cousin, Zehero Barzani. Set up in 1991 in a building constructed by the Caritas NGO, the factory was taken over two years later by the German NGO Lovebridge. The NGO also financed a second, larger workshop in the nearby town of Bila, 10 minutes to the east. "Lovebridge's idea is very simple," Mohammed Saadik Barzani, who now works as a technical adviser to the workshops, told IRIN. "Profits are used to fund other projects. We've built a library in Bila, and we're currently training local women who will staff a kindergarten we're building." Factory profits also go to supplement the salaries of doctors and nurses, often unwilling to abandon the comforts of Arbil or Dahuk for these mountain communities. "You wouldn't believe how much our work has changed over the last decade." Khatin Barzani, obviously embarrassed by her co-workers' insistence that she's the best weaver in town, told IRIN. "At first, we were basically a charity, making rugs with simple pictorial designs bought up by local companies and hotels, "she explained. "Now we're exporting to Germany." She pointed to the loom she and a colleague were busy working on, three metres of complicated pile wool design on a dark blue background. It had been six weeks in the making, with a further six weeks to go. "We still continue to base patterns on samples imported from Iran or Europe," Mohammed Saadik Barzani said. "But carpets are only a success if the weaver has a feel for colour. Many of the women here have a real talent." There are snags, though. "There's plenty of space for more women to come and work here if they want," Burak Barzani added, pointing to the three or four untended looms in the corner of the Barzan workshop. "But nobody seems to want to." Down in Bila, equally under-staffed, Rahan Barzani had no doubt as to the reason many women have decided not to bother to work. "Most of us work a minimum of six hours a day, six days a week, and yet we're lucky if we take home more than US $60 at the end of the month," she complained. Mohamed Saadik fully agreed that wages should be higher. But he put most of the blame for growing dissatisfaction on the rapid rise in salaries around Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. "This time last year, salaries here were three times as much as those in the state factories," he said. "Now they are roughly the same, despite the fact that our employees work longer hours and produce better carpets than their state-funded counterparts." "What can we do?" he shrugged. "The government couldn't care less whether the publicly owned factories are bringing money in. But we get no subsidies and we have to make a profit." "If they continue protecting an inefficient part of the market, they'll destroy the private sector."

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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