Bibi Hanum: Uzbeki Ikat & Women Of the Silk Road

Bibi Hanum: Uzbeki Ikat & Women Of the Silk Road

Bibi Hanum founder Muhayo Aliyeva takes us on a journey on the Silk Road, illuminating the rich history of “adras” or Uzbeki ikat and the importance of empowering women in her country.
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Today we are in Tashkent, Uzbekistan to chat with Muhayo Aliyeva the founder of Bibi Hanum, a textile social enterprise that is reviving adras, or Uzbeki ikat and empowering women. Based in Tashkent, the capital city, Bibi Hanum works with artisans in Fergana Valley and the Novoi, regions that were once the epicenter of trade on the ancient Silk Road. 

Muhayo started Bibi Hanum in her mother’s garage back in 2006. During this time she was holding down multiple jobs to support her family, including working as a teacher and a cultural liaison at the US Embassy in Tashkent. But Bibi Hanum took off, and with Muhayo’s leadership and vision, this ancient craft which was once the favoured currency of the Silk Road is making a comeback.

When I started Bibi Hanum …. It was kind of automatic that women were supposed to be involved

The history of Uzbekistan is inseparable from the history of The “Silk Road”.   The Silk Road embodies adventure and ambition. It was a thoroughfare that enabled the exchange of ideas, values, skills and even disease. The eastern and western branches of the Silk Road crossed in Uzbekistan. Bukhara, Samarkand  and the Fergana Valley were for a time the epicenter of global trade. In the middle ages, traffic on the Silk Road slowed down as more traders took to the high seas.

Bibi Hanum: Uzbeki Ikat & Women Of the Silk Road

The Soviet era further eroded Uzbekistan’s presence as a center of trade. During this time, artisan guilds were disbanded. Collectivized factories and cotton farming became the norm. Handwoven silk adras gradually replaced printed cotton robes and manufactured clothing.

Even though by constitution women have equal rights, Uzbekistan is still a male dominated society

With Bibi Hanum and a growing interest in adras, Fergana Valley is once again buzzing. At the center of this “buzz” is adras, or Uzbeki ikat. Adras is bold, lavish and requires incredible skill and patience. A craft rooted in the Central Asia steppes, adras retains it’s nomadic roots. Each step—and there are many!— of the process is undertaken by a specific skilled artisan, and the silk fibres move from household to household and village to village before it’s finally completed. Muhayo explains the  fascinating process of turning silk fibres into handwoven adras during her talk at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art.

Before our conversation, Muhayo insisted we not talk about anything controversial. But we invariably found ourselves talking about women in Uzbek society. Bibi Hanum is one of the few social enterprises in Uzbekistan specifically dedicated to women’s empowerment. During our conversation, Muhayo shares her perspective on this delicate topic. Her indictment on the patriarchal system Uzbekistan is subtle, but fair.

The social aspect [women’s empowerment] of Bibi Hanum came along because I have grown with women who went through many difficulties in their life

The role of women in Uzbek society can be fraught.The bias against women has been upheld by the culture and overlooked by the government. In the post-Soviet era, the new Uzbekistan constitution extended equal rights to women. However, inside family units, women’s status remains largely unchanged. When Muhayo started Bibi Hanum, extending opportunities to women was priority. Bibi Hanum currently provides women employment as seamstresses, weavers and embroiderers in Fergana Valley, Tashkent and Novoi region. In spite of her efforts, Muhayo concedes that women’s empowerment is an uphill battle.

No doubt the current pandemic will leave its imprint. But Mahayo remains optimistic. She’s reorienting Bibi Hanum to focus more on the domestic market. And, she’s launching a new brand called Kanyo dedicated to more affordable kaftans, loungewear and everyday clothing for the whole family. Stay updated on Kanyo’s rollout on the Bibi Hanum’s website.

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