International Women’s Day: How Women Artisans are Crafting the Stories of their Own Lives
She feeds her family, is nearly always the primary care-giver, works the fields to produce half the world’s food supply and contributes to nearly two-thirds of the world’s cumulative work hours – so says the United Nations. That’s what a woman does on an average day. Yet she earns, collectively, only about a tenth of the entire world’s income, faces bias, discrimination from many quarters and is far more often at the receiving end of violence and abuse. But she soldiers on, making roads where none existed for her before, defying all odds, breaking through preconceived notions about women to come out gloriously victorious, no matter how small the victory is.
If you take this narrative and place it specifically over the Indian handcrafts sector, you would be amazed at how text-book like it is. But with the choices they make everyday and with the help of dedicated textile revivalists and experts who believed it is every woman’s right to live her life fully, be able to use her skills for financial gain and be a part of the journey of preserving some of India’s most beautiful crafts, these women artisans have been able to realize that the power to empower lies within themselves. Using skills – most often learnt from their mothers or other women in the family, they have been able to bring a change in their own lives.
On International Women’s day we asked some of the women entrepreneurs who collaborate with these artisans to share their perspectives on what impact has being able to use their skills gainfully had on the lives of these artisans and how empowering it is for them.
Sally Holkar of Women Weave says, “Women are the shadow weavers of India. In most places, it is their skilled hands that wind the bobbins, untangle the threads, smooth the finished fabric and bring serenity to the who weaving process. In a very few areas, women are the primary weavers. Overall, it is probably fair to say that without women’s skilled hands, there would be very little Handloom”. Women Weave is a charitable trust that collaborates with designers from various countries to create bespoke accessories woven by hundreds of skilled women artisans in Central India.
Shamlu Dudeja, who founded SHE Kantha or the ‘Self Help Enterprise’ more than 25 years ago, says, “ Our objective in working with women Kantha embroiderers in rural West Bengal was to achieve ‘dwar pe rozi’ or help these Kantha artisans generate an income right from their doorstep. What I have seen in this time is that being able to craft beautiful Kantha textiles that have not only found a growing customer base but also appreciation from various quarters has given these artisans a sense of dignity. They’ve earned the respect of their family members & neighbors, have financial independence and are able to participate in reviving an important craft of India. This sense of being relevant in their own social milieu is what is empoweing for these artisans”.
It isn’t an easy task though as the conditions of these women are usually not very positive. Deepa Pathak, of Chandi Maati Collective, that works with women artisans in rural Uttarakhand says, ” we work with women, nearly all of whom are wives or daughters of marginal farmers where the farm activity is hardly enough to sustain families even for basic needs. The men in the family control the finances and quite often their priorities on how to spend the money is not conducive to the well being of the family- alcohol & gambling being the main culprits”. However, the women realized that they could make a change in their lives, that it is, in fact, in their power to do something different, to alleviate their conditions in the household and the society. Deepa Pathak elaborates,
” The women make simple products from muslin enabling them to gain financial independence & prioritise the spend on food, education and health & the general well being of the family. Chandi Maati also provides them a platform where they can they can share their dreams, joys & sorrows with each other and brings about a very empowering feeling of sisterhood”.
Usha Prajapati of Samoolam (Collective Roots) that works with more than 90 women from the weaker sections of the society to craft apparel, stationary and other products, shares a similar experience. She says, “ Samoolam is not just an entity; it is a forever evolving journey where women from weaker sections of the society are realising their self-worth and making choices that help them work towards creating a respectful and happy life for themselves and their families through beautiful meditative crochet craft practices”.
The capacity to explore their worth through work is certainly empowering but the need for education and enlightenment is equally important for these artisans and their subsequent generations. Vijaya Khan of Qilasaaz, a collective of women artisans in the city of Mahmudabad near Lucknow, tells us how being able to be your life’s master needs more than just craft skills. She says, “At Qilasaaz we have always emphasized the absolute importance of never cutting corners. The necessity to save and to control one’s earnings is very important and we have emphasized the need for having their own bank accounts to the artisans right from the start. That along with the need for a level playing field as far as education is concerned is fundamental. Sadly, in general education standards are so disappointingly low. But even what prevails hopefully contributes to some exposure, to the opening of minds, hints at questions that need to be asked, contributes to having aspirations and making choices. The younger generation of those connected to Qilasaaz are all going to schools and colleges, They are even beginning to understand the value of their elder’s skills and sense that if they imbibe some of these, it will only contribute to a wonderful richness in their lives”.
Ami Shroff of Shrujan, a collective that has been working with the women embroiderers of Kutch since the late 60s, gives us a surprising, new perspective on what empowerment is. She says, “Way back in 1969, when Shrujan started, it was all about enabling the women to survive through the period of severe drought. As the years passed, the women used their earnings to run the household; then as their income increased, they invested in farm animal or gold and silver jewelry as savings. But with financial independence has come wisdom. The women now invest in education for their children, in health and hygiene and in purchasing practical household amenities.The greatest impact of women’s financial independence however has been on the men: there is more respect for the women; they enjoy more authority in making critical decisions. Men do not have the luxury of a consistent income, the way the Shrujan women do.This has played a huge role in securing an elevated status for women. And all this has happened quietly, without much articulation, but it shows in the way the men rely on the women to see them through rough times including calamities like the 2001 earthquake when the women artisans sat on the rubble to embroider just a few days after the disaster. When charitable organizations came to help them they told them to go help others because ‘ we can embroider; we can earn and look after ourselves and our families’.This was the trust and confidence in their abilities and I think that is true empowerment”.
Situated in the beautiful village of Purkalat the Himalayan foothills, Purkal Stree Shakti is a social enterprise that endeavors to empower rural women in this area through skill development and entrepreneurship. By giving a steady income to the artisans through crafting of quilted home textiles and more, it aims to instil greater confidence and self esteem in them. In one decade of their presence here, Purkal Stree Shakti Samiti has made a tremendous difference to the lives of women in the 35 villages they serve- there is more respect for them and less gender inequality. Their approach to empowerment is summed up in this quote, “Patching lives…Quilting Joys!”
There is something extraordinary happening in India as can be seen in these stories above; something that has undoubtedly put us on the path of gender equality – Women are no longer just ‘asking’ for help; they are taking charge of their own lives, like the women artisans that work with these organizations. They are taking their own decisions and ensuring there is change in their lives. And that is empowerment.
Jaypore associates with all of these and more organizations with an aim to helping the beautiful arts and crafts of India alive and to ensure that the fabulous crafts and textiles that the artisans create has one more avenue to showcase to the world.
Happy Women’s Day!