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My daughter has volunteered at a refugee camp, travels solo and is training to run a marathon. Last month, home for her summer holidays, she sprang a new goal: to learn embroidery.
“Embroidery?” I asked. “As in needle and thread?”
“Yes, you know, stitch.”
I belong to a generation where sewing was treated as an essential life skill and taught to girls in school. One of my earliest memories takes me back to Class I when I was six years old. My needlework teacher is looking at my running stitch sample around a square piece of cloth. Shaking her head, she says, with the greatest tenderness: “Oh dear, how will you ever mend your husband’s shirt buttons?”
I remember standing there aware of some deep failing.
That conversation stayed, as did the classes. In the co-ed school where I studied for two years in Mumbai, the girls did needlework while the boys learned carpentry. By college, my stitching skills were developed enough for me to join a tailoring class run then by Singer sewing machine company in Connaught Place. Every now and then, I remind my tailor, Raisbhai, that I know what I’m talking about.
Meanwhile, women have made strides in education and demanded legislation to protect their rights. We were at the forefront of our mission to Mars and we brought home medals from Rio. We are saying, yes we can, and just do it, and, why the hell not. And now, here is my daughter, an independent, strong woman who has never threaded a needle in her life, telling me she wants to sew.
I should have known better.
Ten years ago, I had travelled to Kutch to meet Chanda Shroff, the force behind a project that sustains thousands of families in the drought-prone region through exquisitely made embroidered products.
Using traditional embroidery skills—passed from mother to daughter for generations—the project, Shrujan, involves 3,500-4,000 women across 120 villages. Chandaben, aka kaki, was then 73 years old and had just become the first Indian recipient of the Rolex Award for Enterprise. At one of the villages I visited, Jamunaben, a former daily wage labourer, spoke about earning “a good living here in my home”. Chandaben also told me about an embroiderer called Rajiben. She was a Dalit, but so skillful that the higher-caste women were keen to learn from her.
The women were paid not just per piece, but for quality. The finer the quality, the better her earnings. The more she earned, the greater her status within her family and within her village.
It really was as simple as that. The threads of embroidery were not just empowering women and giving them an income, they were in a small way also breaking down social barriers.
When I called to reconnect with Chandaben last week, I learned that she had passed away last month. Shrujan is now being run by her daughter Ami, who shuttles between Mumbai and Kutch. “There’s a lot of work to be done. We have big expansion plans,” she said.
Across the border in Balochistan, the Sughar (the word means skilled and confident) Empowerment Society offers women the space to get together and embroider. The brainchild of Khalida Brohi (you can hear her February 2015 TED talk here), the society has its own tribal fashion brand. The financial contribution by the women to their households is in many cases so substantial that the men who might be discomfited by their new-found independence often choose to stay silent.
For so many of us in urban India, sewing carries the historical baggage of domestic stereotyping, taking us back to when women’s work was clearly defined (within the house) and embroidery was one of the few creative outlets for ‘proper wives’. Interestingly, the language associated with this skill is disparaging—you spin a yarn, you embroider a story, you hem and haw.
How refreshing then that a new generation might want to reclaim that space in the belief that there is no contradiction between being a feminist and being deft with a needle.
I watch as my daughter cuts, prepares, folds and irons; untangles knots and makes new ones; weaves her needle in and out. And in doing so joins the special comradeship of women who have been there before her.
Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint.
Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare