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Poor Muslim women connect to global fashion with crafts

One project, "Ruaab: SEWA Artisans Producer Company", is empowering nearly 1,500 Muslim women in the eastern fringe of the capital with full-time jobs as embroiderers and designers to international brands like Zara, Gap Inc-Banana Republic, Monsoon, NEXT, Newlook and Vero Moda.

A Ruaab worker beads a cushion cover

The women work both at the SEWA centres and out of their homes.

Another cooperative project with 100 Bhagalpur silk weavers in Bihar is empowering at least 90 Muslim families with women leading the trade, a spokesperson for the organisation said.

Their creations, mostly saris and yardage, are finding global platforms through the foreign missions like the German, American and Canadian embassies in India, the government's Handloom Commission, Silk Mark and private organisations like KPMG and Aircel.

In April, hundreds of Muslim women weavers employed with SEWA created a range of embroidered home furnishings - mostly hand-beaded cushions - for London-based designer Tracey Boyd's "Aboydbazaar" - a show marking his return to the world of accessory and apparel design after a small break.

Boyd was named the New British Designer Of The Year in 2000.

"The cushions were embellished with 'Ari' thread embroidery and beadwork," SEWA designer Pallavi Yadav told IANS at a showcase of Ruaab in the capital Friday.

Yadav said: "The SEWA centres in east Delhi, which are Muslim-dominated, has more than 350 regular Muslim workers and over 700 home-based workers."

Most of these workers are migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh who come in search of better livelihood.

The women have learnt the traditional "Ari" thread work from their native villages in districts like Barielly and Bulandsahar.

The "Ari" embroidery is a variation of the Kashmiri "addawork"- an intricate thread craft, Yadav said.

"It is a common sight in the resettlement slums in east Delhi to find these women sitting outside their houses with a piece of fabric tied to a long "adda", a wooden frame on which they embroider," Yadav said.

Ruaab also has centres in the Muslim-dominated villages of Uttar Pradesh.

The organisation, which was set up in 1972 by Ela Bhatt in Gujarat, works in nine states across India.

"In Bhagalpur district in Bihar, where the traditional handloom weavers have been battling powerloom and the nexus of middlemen in the silk trade, SEWA has been trying to link them to the market with the help of SEWA Saheli, its cooperatve", the director of SEWA Bharat told IANS.

The weavers are paid Rs.600 per sari against the Rs.500 paid by the government, and Rs.250 by middlemen, said Neha Saini, marketing coordinator for the organisation's Bhagalpur project.

For the illiterate and poor Muslim women, who have never been out of the confines of their homes, the formal engagement with SEWA has been socially and psychologically empowering.

They can now go out unescorted, speak to people. The core group of sample crafts people - who make samples for international brands - now have developed international fashion consciousness.

"We took a few women to London a couple of years ago to show them the brand headquarters to which they supplied. They now suggest their own inputs for the designs," Yadav said.

Confidence shines like an armour in the faces and body language of Tabassum, Taslim and Zeenat - three full-time "ari" thread workers from Sundernagar near Noida in east Delhi.

They say working for SEWA has taken the insecurity out of their lives.

"I don't want to work anywhere because SEWA pays well. I make around Rs.5,000 a month and live comfortably with my family of three children. I worked for a middleman earlier who paid me Rs.2,500," Taslim, a migrant craftsperson from Bulandshahr, told IANS.

Tabassum has built a home together with her husband, a shoe-maker, after joining SEWA.

Zeenat, who lives with her sister, a migrant bangle-maker from Barielly, has overcome her shyness of strangers and "is allowed to go out of home alone". 

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