Whenever a well-dressed woman appears on television, Sohrab Khan Marri calls out loudly to his daughters Uzma and Sanam. “Look. This is the latest design. You can make something like this for your clients,” he says.
A year ago, the environment in this house in Quetta was very different. While Marri and his wife are educated people and allowed their girls to get an education, working outside the home was taboo for women in their family.
All that changed after the two sisters stepped out of their comfort zone and travelled to Karachi to attend a six month-long fashion design course, introduced by Institute for Development Studies and Practices (IDSP) to help empower young women from Balochistan.
“Before the course, I did not know I had a purpose in life. Now life is so exciting! I have realized I have the power to be a role model for the women of my area. I now teach women at Darul Aman Quetta the same skills I learnt. I also try and build their confidence,” says Uzma.
“All of the 20 girls who were chosen for the first batch are from Balochistan. We extend help to anyone who we feel is marginalised and is from vulnerable segments of society,” explains Asma Zafar, Manager Institutional Support at IDSP.
Zafar is in charge of these projects, and shares that the second batch of girls will soon start the course. The young women come from communities across Balochistan but they have one thing in common: life has not been easy on them.
Their problems are mostly an overlap of poverty, insecurity and violence. “There have been cases on Saryaab Road area in Quetta where acid was thrown on women simply because they ventured out of their homes to work,” says Zafar.
According to her, if these women step out of their homes to work, the Pashtoon rikshaw drivers will not take a Baloch woman as a passenger, and vice versa, as they do not want to get involved with the responsibility of helping a woman from another community commute to work.
“The girls come to us with social conditioning and ethnic bias at times. But the same girls who initially do not want to talk to each other have, by the end, become best friends,” says Zafar, explaining how the project also serves as a peace-building initiative.
Zarina and Bakhtawar speak to each other in Dari when asked if Karachi has been the safe haven they hoped it would be. They are from the Shia Hazara community and migrated to Karachi from Quetta more than 15 years ago, in search of a more secure and comfortable life.
But while Karachi has given them a lot, it has also taken away a significant amount. Zarina’s 32-year-old brother, along with two others, was shot earlier this year at Karachi’s Maskan Chowrangi just because he belonged to the Hazara community. “An FIR was lodged but there was no follow-up. My brother has left behind five children, a young wife and our parents,” says Zarina. A resident of Manghopir area, there are 18 family members in Zarina’s house.
The ISDP provides these girls with the basic materials they need for the course, like fabric. The profit is shared on a 50-50 basis between the girls and IDSP. In addition the girls are paid separately for the hard work they put in. To help girls like herself, Zarina is teaching 10 girls in her neighbourhood. “I charge them Rs200 each and earn about Rs2000 a month from that too. Recently, a supporter of the organization internationally exhibited the clothes designed by these girls and sold them.
“We are taught everything, right from sketching, drafting, cutting and stitching,” says Zarina. What is most interesting is how these girls, in this women-friendly space, learn each other’s traditional stitches specific to the culture of each community. Zarina, for instance, displays very fine embroidery done in the Qibtimaar stitch, typical to the Hazara community.
The course includes more than just fashion design. The girls are taught basic skills like oral hygiene and self-grooming techniques. “The first girl from a family comes to us with a lot of difficulty. But once they start earning, the male family members also come on board. The entire family transforms. But this is done one girl at a time,” says Zafar. Uzma adds, “I think we have succeeded in opening a small door to opportunity for the other girls of my family.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 12th, 2014.