It was these very questions which inspired Iqbal to begin carving out a path for himself which would allow him to not only immerse himself within the intricacies of both – polar opposite – cultures, but also, to question his place and his mission in the world.

Ten years ago, in 2010, the mist began to clear and Iqbal’s path slowly revealed itself to him by way of a grant (from the Arts Trust Scotland) to study traditional embroideries in Pakistan’s ethereal Chitral Valley.

“The trip changed my entire perspective of Pakistan,” the 34-year-old states, “I spent two months traveling to remote villages across the valley and would spend hours observing craft communities, listening to the artisans and understanding their environment, lives and aesthetics.”

It was during this first research trip that Iqbal knew what to do: he was going to develop a cross-cultural project that would explore and connect the craft of the Chitrali artisans and that of the Harris Tweed weavers from Outer Hebrides (of Scotland). Two years later, in 2012, Iqbal received the Dewar Arts Award for his community-led project, Twilling Tweeds.

“That was my ticket into exploring both traditions from Scotland and Pakistan. It was the subtle nuances of the artisans that inspired me to develop Twilling Tweeds,” he says, revealing that during the project, Iqbal held a number of art workshops with women artisans in Chitral.

These sessions focused on discussions about Chitrali customs and traditions, ancient folklore, how to develop art storyboards, art classes (how to work with new materials), art techniques and the enhancement of artistic skills, to state a few.

“My aim was to connect textile workers in the remote areas of Chitral with those in the Outer Hebrides, creating a bridge between communities and promoting a cultural awareness between the two countries,” Iqbal states.

The artwork featuring each artisan’s interpretation of Pakistani and Scottish narratives was then showcased at international and local exhibitions.

Today, apart from his ongoing work training and facilitating approximately 500 Twilling Tweeds craftswomen – who use traditional needlework for capsule collections – the designer has also been heavily involved in the development of the Mahraka Center in Chitral.

Founded in the summer of 2019 as a collaboration between Kilcheran (a Scottish-based social enterprise where Iqbal works as a sustainability facilitator) and Kho and Kalashi (a local non-profit in Chitral), the center stands as a space for training and employment opportunities for Chitrali craftswomen.

“Having spent almost ten years working with craft communities, I always wanted to create a space for local women where they have access to work and other opportunities,” the designer says, “It is a shared community enterprise hub where women can come and meet others, be inspired and seize opportunities for the fulfilment of well-being, skills development and economic empowerment.”

Since its launch, the Mahraka Centre has benefitted roughly 1,500 women, providing full-time jobs, including the training and accreditation for Fusion, a homegrown brand of embroidered products, spearheaded by Iqbal around the same time.

“During [the Mahraka] partnership I developed and designed Fusion, which reflects the joint collaboration between Scotland and Pakistan, acting as a vehicle to generate sustainable livelihoods for local artisans,” he states, adding that all profits made from the brand are re-invested into the center.

“People have always asked me how my work has changed the lives of the local women in Chitral over the years, but it’s important to note that change takes time and after working for almost ten years with the communities, I can say that the lives of women in Chitral are changing. It is still a slow process as there are many factors influencing this; the current economic situation of Pakistan, increasing sectarianism and religious extremism are some of the many daily challenges one has to battle. All of this has a trickledown effect on rural craft communities. The goal is to persevere and continue no matter what comes your way.”

While meaningful collaborations and projects that are geared towards the economic empowerment of Chitral’s craftswomen, Iqbal reveals that there is one particular looming issue that is rarely ever addressed: mental health.

Even amidst such magnificent natural beauty, Chitral faces high suicide rates due to immense pressure in the education system, the lack of employment opportunities and a waning connection to creative pursuits such as arts and crafts.

“Many are unware of this, partly due to the ignorance around mental health awareness within Pakistan. Although the conversation has started, it is a taboo subject for rural communities,” Iqbal states.

“Chitral remains a remote and neglected area of Pakistan and many women are still reluctant in sharing their stories with strangers. You have to build a relationship with the locals where trust, respect and integrity is maintained. This is one of the reasons the Mahraka Centre was started. Women in Chitral suffer from loneliness and depression and they needed a space where they can meet other women, volunteer their time and get encouraged to learn new skills. Although there have been many fashion brands in the past that have worked in Chitral, unfortunately they have failed because they were not able to understand the underlying social issues affecting the craft communities.”

In the decade since his research and work in the valley, one success story in particular stands out for Iqbal.

Having participated in one of Twilling Tweeds’ initial workshops in 2011, the designer has seen the young Mansura Shams go from strength to strength. Born into a conservative family, Iqbal states that Shams’ story is one of resilience and hard work.

“Her strength, courage and commitment towards her community is inspirational,” he says, “[Shams] is the future. She’s had many challenges battling patriarchy but continues to persevere. In fact, Kho and Kalashi is her brainchild. My aim is to ensure that Kho and Kalashi become fully operational and sustainable. While I’m not sure how long this will take, but the future of craft is dependent on local women taking ownership.”

Currently in Chitral since August, this year, Iqbal is preparing to begin working with roughly 800 craftswomen across Chitral on the launch of Kho and Kalashi’s first collection of traditional lifestyle pieces, including the development of the non-profit’s e-commerce platform.

“The website will feature all of Chitral’s artisans and allow them to sell their products under one platform. The aim here is that the craftswomen will take ownership in making, photographing and dispatching their products to buyers, giving them complete ownership and transparency in their earnings.”

For Iqbal, a community evolves slowly over a time. This is because many things have to be unlearned and learned. It is a process that Iqbal understands quite well. Besides, the designer is in no rush. He’s been working in the valley for a decade, immersing himself in the Chitrali way of life, culture and thought process.

“History and heritage are at the heart of age-old craftsmanship which has been passed on from generation to generation,” he says, “But to pave the way for a sustainable future of these crafts, each of us must contribute and play our part in its uplift.”  .. SOURCE