Weaving in Tunisia

An interview with Emma Djilali, the co-founder of Aatik, on women empowerment in rural regions of Tunisia and the challenges of fair-trade business.
Photo credit: Aatik Project

Aatik is a project which was co-founded in Tunisia by Canadian Emma Djilali and her colleague Sophie Bergman from Germany in fall 2015. The project works with a group of female weavers in the region of Siliana in North-west Tunisia. The goal is to help these women to build up their own cooperative structure and gain better access to commercial opportunities on a fair-trade basis without the need of an intermediary.

The project started as a 3-month training program for women artisans funded by the Canadian embassy. 22 women took part in the training and learnt how to improve their weaving skills and to produce higher quality products. This was complemented by training sessions on design as well as women’s rights. “Basically, we were getting them to learn to speak up about various issues, either on a personal or communal level, and to talk about their rights as workers”, declared Djilali. This training program ended in March, 2016. At the end of the program, a small group of women wanted to continue working with the project and set up their own cooperative structure, which would be run and operated by them. This was exactly what the project managers had in mind when they first started the training: to allow artisans to run their own self-sustain project.

When asked about her role, Djilali said that she sees herself more as a facilitator than as a boss. “I’m there to help the women figure out what they want to do and how they want to continue working together. This is a very important principle of our project: every final decision has to be one that’s taken by the women, and not us.”

For the second stage of the Aatik project the cooperative rented a workshop and started producing and selling traditional Kilim products to individual customers. Djilali and Bergman coached the women how to improve their organizational skills as well as testing new production designs and market access strategies. This led the women to adapt the style of Kilim rugs in order to access a broader market without losing the traditional aspect of their production techniques. In September of this year, the cooperative was able to rent a slightly larger workshop enabling four more women to join the team.

The group of women interested to work with them in a cooperative was initially rather small due to the traditional working situation Tunisian women artisans are exposed to. It is common for artisans in Tunisia to work for a buyer or a boss who orders a number of rugs from them and pay them by meter. This traditional working situation puts the women in a position in which they can easily be exploited, as they have no say in determining the value of their work. The idea of creating a collaborative structure where everyone is part of the decision-making process was something new to the women. At the beginning they were afraid of losing the small employment stability they had, but they knew that if they took this risk, they’d probably have a higher income in a couple of months, and that they would also end up being the ones in control.

Photo credit: Aatik Project

One of the women, Rabi’a, took on a leadership role. She is now the spokesperson when it comes to dealing with translation, communication, as well as the designs, and finances related to the workshop.

“Gaining one another’s trust, and getting to know other women in this community is what helped to make our project strong”, stated Djilali. “It has become something personal. We have become very connected to the community.”

Despite the growing awareness for fair-trade business in Tunisia, there is a bigger market for it abroad, as well as a greater willingness to pay a higher price for handicrafts. Therefore, Aatik is looking to reach out to foreign buyers, and to establish commercial partnerships with small businesses and boutiques interested in fair-trade products. A regular commercial relationship with buyers gives the artisans a higher level of stability. Aatik has already made connections to a few boutiques in the U.S. and in Europe. One aspect of the future plan for the project will be to move to a more business-to-business fair-trade approach. Another aspect will be to register Aatik as a social enterprise and the women as the rightful owners. Previously, the project has launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise a small amount of money to continue with the training and to set up a commercial structure.

In addition to this, Djilali said to have thought about up-scaling the project to include more groups of artisans. At the moment, she and her colleague Sophie Bergman are also involved in a similar project in Kef with the Center for Arab women and Research (CAWTAR). Djilali and Bergman have considered setting up a broader platform to include several groups of women artisans in Tunisia, and expand the structure abroad.

Even though Djilali will be leaving Tunisia next year to attend graduate school, she intends to remain implicated in the project, and the Aatik team will continue to work to enable women artisans fulfill their right to work and earn what they deserve.

Magdalena Mach

Magdalena is a Middle East Studies and Philosophy graduate from Austria currently working in as a Trainee at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Tunis, a German foundation linked to the Green Party with a focus on ecology, democracy, gender equality and peace. For the past 3 years, she has focused her work and studies on the Maghreb. Based in Tunis, she has been working in a gender research project, as a Freelance Researcher, Translator, and for NGO projects focused on themes such as: art and intersectional feminism, and discrimination of minorities in the MENA region. As a polyglot, she has previously spent time living and studying in Australia, France, and North Africa. In her free time, she experiments with music, and mixing of sounds.
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