Rubia: Mending Afghanistan Stitch by Stitch
Rubia: Mending Afghanistan Stitch by Stitch
In Afghanistan’s valley of Darrai Noor, Rubia offers an artistic alternative for income generation to women whose families have supported themselves through the sale of their poppy harvest for opium. With the motto, “Sew Don’t Grow,” women who lack opportunities for earning money embroider poppies and other traditional designs to sell in the US. Handwork provides a legitimate source of income, a new tradition in textiles. Rubia focuses on building women’s self-confidence through financial empowerment. Money in her own hands bolsters a woman’s standing in her family, her respect among her peers and decision-making power in the household.
During Rubia’s past decade of work on the ground with Afghan families, first in Pakistan where they were refugees, and then in Afghanistan, we have witnessed whole families suffering from poverty, sickness, and illiteracy and women’s deprivation from basic human rights, such as health and education.
In response to an impoverished Afghan family’s plea for help in making ends meet in Pakistan, where they had fled to escape the Taliban, Rachel Lehr, an artist and ethno-linguist from New Hampshire who worked with their minority group, the Pashai, started Rubia. The choice of handwork as a means of poverty alleviation builds on the tradition of passing old skills down from mother to daughter. Rubia integrates these traditional elements with the new benefit of earning an income while maintaining fragile elements of their textile heritage: plant dyes, natural fibers, and designs drawn from ancient Afghan tribal patterns. The beauty and authenticity of Rubia’s traditional needlework make it unique.
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Sew Don’t Grow
The Pashai community brought their new skills and income-generating potential across the border to their ancestral home in Darrai Noor where subsistence farmers grow poppies to earn their livelihoods. Trained Afghan facilitators integrate literacy into handwork lessons: the needle becomes the pen they used to sign their names –often for the first time. Mothers who learn to read and write in their own language are more likely to send their daughters to school, as are educated fathers.
How does an artist get involved with Rubia?
Our Afghan NGO partners in Darrai Noor, Jalalabad and Farah province invite women and girls in its community to participate in Rubia’s workshops integrating embroidery training, literacy and creation of handwork in accordance with Fair Trade principles. Women often bring their daughters with them.
Do you offer training?
Rubia provides training in all the skills needed to create fine functional and ornamental textiles that reflect the Afghan aesthetic. In addition to artistic skills, Rubia provides training in numeracy and literacy: women learned to sign their work in their own language. For many Afghan women this stitched signature represents a new skill, learning to read and write. Their signed work is marketed in Afghanistan and in the US through direct sales at shows and fairs and through retail shops and wholesale vendors. Furthermore, the multi-pronged approach used in Threads of Change integrates lessons in civics, health and hygiene, and human rights.
How many people/organizations are involved in your mission?
Twenty Afghans are implementing Rubia’s programs in Afghanistan. There are eight members of Rubia’s Board of Directors, four Rubia staff members and five volunteers. We have trained 400 women in fine embroidery skills, in three different parts of Afghanistan, including women recovering from substance abuse through therapeutic stitchery at the Sanga Amaj Drug Treatment Center in Kabul.
What have been the challenges in running Rubia?
The biggest challenges for our project have been insecurity due to thirty years of war, conservative cultural norms and religious extremism. We have overcome these formidable obstacles to working in Afghanistan by staying “below the radar screen.” Our approach does not threaten the traditional norm of women’s exclusion from the public sphere: women are trained in the company of other women -- and do not encounter males outside of their families during our training sessions. The local Taliban leave the project alone because it contributes to the local economy. Careful listening to the community’s needs and understanding of its heritage have helped the project survive the stresses of war, displacement, and religious extremism.
What are the current projects you would like our audience to check out?
We are excited about our new ‘Threads of Change’ program which pulls together materials from illustrated sources to integrate civic education, health and hygiene into embroidery lessons. Targeted at non-literate women, “Threads of Change” communicates visually, actively engages women in discussions, and reinforces lessons through tactile means. Participants receive a booklet with a set of illustrations, each bearing a different message, such as hand washing, breast -feeding, immunization, voting rights and female literacy.
The underlying idea is for women to gather together not only to reproduce these drawings by embroidering them onto fabric, but also to participate in guided discussions with the aid of a skilled facilitator. Embroidering these images introduces basic information that seclusion and illiteracy have blocked from their lives. In the process, they will need to stitch the captions in their own languages, thereby reinforcing literacy. Facilitators present lessons while they are sitting comfortably with the women, listen attentively to their reactions, and ask the trainees to respond -- in their own words.
What is next for Rubia?
Over the next three years, Rubia will strive to teach the “Threads of Change” curriculum to 1000 women and empower them, accordingly, through the sale of their embroidery. Threads of Change will be implemented at three locations – the Women’s Center in Jalalabad, its satellite center in Majburabad, and in Farah.Women literally embroider their way through the life lessons, gaining tools that they can use to change their lives. More Afghan women will have the chance to speak up and hear their own voices, often for the first time, in a group setting. Women literally embroider their way through the life lessons, gaining tools that they can use to change their lives. Together, they are sewing “Threads of Change.”
To order Rubia embroidery, go to http://rubiahandwork.org/catalog_full.html
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