When embroidery becomes empowerment

Recently Karachista held its first ever online pop-up on Instagram, for an amazing Karachi-based charity called Tahreek-e-Falah that helps women in a katchi abadi produce the most incredible hand-embroidered clothes. Ayesha Siddiqui finds out more about this amazing initiative, a story of empowerment and women lifting up women…

“Aisha, never stand with a begging bowl outstretched to the men in your life, you must stand on your own feet, command your own income and then you will see the respect and dignity with which you can lead your life,”
Nargis Jeevanjee to Aisha, a young seamstress about to commence a career of teaching embroidery.

It’s remarkable how a few words uttered decades earlier can penetrate deep within a mind, take root there and become the guiding principle for a program that has helped generations of young girls and women seeking to find their independence. An initiative that has empowered them to aspire to a higher sense of living, taught them how to look for ways which could encapsulate a more elegant, graceful style of existence.

Katchi Abadi Karachi
The women working for the charity hail from katchi abadis like this one. Most observe purdah and declined to be photgraphed for this piece.

When Karachista held our pop up store showcasing outfits made by Tahreek-e-Falah, the response was electrifying – with all outfits sold out within the hour and our Instagram account deluged with demands for more. The beauty of the hand-embroidered pieces won over our following instantly and customers were delighted to buy such pretty pieces without a designer mark-up.

The program is the brainchild of Nargis Jeevanjee, a legend amongst those who knew her, and was born of her determination to empower women belonging to a restricted income strata of society. Her father was Hatim Alvi, the Mayor of Karachi and she was only 16 when she first approached Begum Razia Mohammad Ali, a founding member of APWA and asked for mentoring on how to conduct social work. Her projects and endeavours went on to be vast and many, and were all blessed with success.

Nargis Jeevanjee belonged to that generation of Pakistani women who hailed from wealthy privileged families who were amongst the upper echelons of society and were famed for their pioneering spirit and their philanthropy. If an area was destitute and a katchi abaadi then that was where need was the greatest, therefore that was where these ladies went, armed with their notebooks and never mind the soaring crime rates or any nonsense about broken-down infrastructure making the area difficult to access.

Mewa Shah was a broken-down district tucked far away on the outskirts of Karachi in Old Golimar and known primarily at the time for the drug addicts who roamed its muddy broken down lanes. It was an area where very few women hailing from a privileged mileu would have ventured. Not only did she penetrate the depths of the area, she discovered some women there had potential for beautiful embroidery and were desperately in need of vocational training. She rented a single room in a resident’s house, arranged for a teacher who would teach them stitching and embroidery and thus the seeds of Tehreek e Falah were sown thirty-two years ago.

The drug addicts who lived there regularly broke into the tiny clinic there and stole the medicines to sell to fund their addiction. Nargis Jeevanjee had a solution for that as well. She managed to get some land from a private donor, the ground floor was made into a proper medical clinic while the first floor established a Quran class and three rooms were converted into an industrial home where daily three shifts of young girls learnt dainty ribbon work, exquisitely fine cross stitch and beautiful embroidery. She had by then long since handed over the reins to a group of ladies who have carried the work on till this day, following the guide lines she had established.

The work produced in Tahreek e Falah is one of the hidden treasures of Karachi. Whether it is unbelievably delicate thread work on the sheen of organza or the glitter of sequins to bring out brilliant colours of the richly embroidered flowers clustered against chiffon; stunning ribbon work in sophisticated nude hues against deep navy blue or black or embellishments with pearls and dripping lace to finish, each outfit is a vision and a work of art.  Of especial note are their buttons. Each one individually and meticulously cross-stitched with rose buds and tiny leaves these buttons are breathtakingly beautiful and are guaranteed to gladden the heart of every fashion lover.

The design element is all handled by volunteers, who choose designs, colours and materials on a weekly basis. The process is meticulous with threads, cuttings and trimmings attached to each material  to provide the women with a template that is easy to follow and then the magic begins. Using their training in techniques of cross-stitch, ribbonwork, resham and beading, a steady stream of beautiful embroidery flows from the deft fingers of the women of Tahreek e Falah. To ensure the delicacy of the cross-stitch, canvas material is specially sourced from abroad.

To this day the girls from Mewa Shah are charged the princely sum of Rs 100/- for attending classes five days a week for three months. Aisha teaches them just as she began all those years ago. By the end of the course the girls are fully trained and commence work. They are given the materials and designs and it being a charitable venture from start to finish the girls who do this are not only promptly and very well paid but every penny in sales goes to them while the prices have been kept deliberately low. The price range is Rs8-11,000  with the most expensive outfit topping at 15000/- . With most pret-wear outfits these days ranging from anywhere between Rs25-28,000, these prices appear almost ludicrously low especially seeing the high quality of cloth and workmanship offered.

This outfit was Rs12,000 – a similar outfit from a designer would have been much more

Tahreek-e-Falah makes pouches for bidh as well. Shirred, frilled, rose-bud embroidered and tucked each pouch is a pocket sized piece of perfection. They supply clothes in Dubai by means of a private individual as well where they have become a huge hit with the Emerati ladies.  Since each piece is handmade, the UAE stock is quite limited. Fortunately for us in Pakistan more stock is available.

“My husband is quite proud of me because he has seen that I bring my own income into the house and it’s flexible. It’s up to me how many outfits I choose to make in a week so depending on the demands on my time, I can increase or decrease my output,” says Shazia, one of their best workers and the youngest of six sisters who have all trained from Tahreek-e-Falah. There are many more stories like hers of young women understanding the importance of empowerment.

The charity hosts two Eid exhibitions a year and take part in the annual Saarc exhibition. We’ve now started regular online pop-ups for the charity on Karachista’s Instagram so do check out our highlights to see what treasures you can get from there and support this incredible endeavour which began all those years ago. Tahreek-e-Falah , making a stand for women’s liberation, one student at a time…..

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