Stitching Lives

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An NGO with an already good track record in social service has roped in literal destitute women and girls and is training them as master tailors. The idea is to get in touch with a good designer and link up with a good website to create a new brand that will be known as contribution to fashion, reports Saima Bhat

Being an only child, 23-year-old Qurat-ul-Ain was very close to her parents, at times who acted as her siblings too.

A modest family background and an urge to provide a better living to her parents, Qurat right from her primary school was focused on excelling in life. A bright student, she had a wish to get a good job after completing her education.

What happened was contrary to the expectations. Even before she could have joined class 11th, nine years ago, she was face to face with a tragedy as doctors diagnosed her father having damaged liver.

Caught in a quagmire of pursuing her own dreams or helping her father to survive, she chooses later. She left studies and started to take care of her ailing father.

Working in a local press as a book binder, her father developed complications in 2009 which doctors suggested is a case of a hernia. Few more investigations revealed the case is critical of being a liver damage (not knowing exactly nature of the problem).

Suddenly after diagnosis, he lost his balancing power. “He could never stand on his feet again,” she said, regretting doctors being unsure of his fate. “At times doctors treat him and there are occasions when they return us saying his condition has worsened so he can’t be treated.”

Shattered emotionally, the finances of family coupled with the cost of treatment had already started to pose risk to their survival. They exhausted all of their savings and lately, food became a luxury, sleeping hungry became routine.

Before it could have serious ramifications, NGO Athrout (hand holding) sponsored their family of three and started helping them on monthly basis with groceries.

The flame to excel is still alive in Qurat, but conditions are not favourable. “Continuing education in such extreme conditions was not possible. We used to save every single penny for father’s treatment and it continued for almost nine years. The disease was under control. But now his liver’s condition has deteriorated again and he has been put on medicines again,” says Qurat, who desires to study again.

When the crisis returned to haunt the family, Athrout’s women specific initiative, Al-Nisa (women) empowerment came to her rescue.

Aimed to help girls from a poor background to earn respectfully and support their families, this initiative teaches them the art of tailoring.

Qurat joined the centre in Bul Bul Lanker in March 2017. She believes she will earn for her father’s treatment and is hopeful someday she may start her studies again.

With Qurat, 13 more girls joined the centre, all from humble backgrounds to be self-reliant. To manage the centre, NGO hired three teachers: one in-charge of the centre and two professional tailors. Interestingly, they too have somewhat similar stories to share.

The idea behind Al-Nisa empowerment, Bashir Ahmad Nadwi, the chairman of Athrout, says, “It was to help families where the male member of a family was either dead or unwell. This scheme is to help females and make them self-reliant and earn for their families.”

Al Nisa was started after many discussions with the experts who decided to start with giving basic tailoring training to girls and then the best of those will get extra classes with well-established designers. Athrout is planning to start a brand ‘The Deeds’ with these designers and rest of the students will be asked to work at their factory where they will be given orders from schools and industries.

The in-charge of Al-Nisa, is Tehseen, 37, MPhil in Punjabi and B.Ed, is a convert to Islam. “Athrout has a proper verification procedure to ensure they belong to the group having the modest family background,” Ms Tehreen said.

The centre currently runs in an evening shift from 2 pm to 4:30 pm where 14 girls from the first batch are taught. But they intend to have a morning shift as well. The first batch will be given training from 6-12 months, she says.

The centre provides them everything. Besides 16 sewing machines, “We give them unstitched suits because they cannot afford to have them of their own. Rest of the things like thread, oils are also provided by the office.” Tehseen says they were supposed to start this centre in 2016 but then it got delayed because of the unrest.

Aarifa, 24, an arts graduate, was home since her coppersmith father had a brain stroke. She couldn’t study further because she felt her father’s savings must be preserved for his treatment. Athrout was helping them in managing basic needs.

Struggling hard with daily expenses, Aarifa’s younger brother dropped out from school in class 9th so that he can replace his father in the workshop.

One day, when her mother went to collect her grocery from Athrout, they handed her a form for Aarifa, saying she can join Al Nisa. That is how she started witnessing a change.

But for Yusra, 20, joining Al-Nisa centre was her own decision. Earlier, she had joined another centre where she had to pay to learn this art. In two weeks, however, she was never allowed to touch a sewing machine or cut a piece of cloth.

“They used to ask us to make cuttings on newspapers. It is easy to learn on the cloth rather than on papers,” Yusra said. “They teach us free and pay us monthly Rs 500 as bus fare.”

She walks from her home in Chattabal every day to save money and later hand over it to her father. “I leave a bit early to save Rs 500 for my father, who met an accident in 2014. He had a fall from 22 feet high structure.”

Yusra’s mason father fractured his hip bone and a few ribs in the accident. After surgery in which a plate was put in to support his hip weight, Yusra says her father is recovering, but not able to work yet.

The floods of 2014 dashed hopes of a family of improving conditions. Their house was washed away and they started living with their grandparents.

Youngest in a family of four, Yusra is waiting for her class 10th results as her brother is graduating in commerce. She has opted to learn to tailor and help family till results are out.

For 23-year-old Ruksana, joining Al-Nisa was her mother’s decision. Four months in training, she is satisfied.

Ruksana was just ten in 2004 when her father, a labourer in local band-saw, died. She doesn’t know the cause of his death. But that left the family of seven in shambles.

Her mother, a housewife, rented few rooms to keep hearth running. A few shops, owned by her husband too were given on rent by her father but after his death, shopkeeper claimed the property. The matter is disputed.

The plight of her family compelled Ruksana and her elder sister to learn the art of needle work on table cloth long back when they were barely in their teens. “We had to get this work from our maternal house in Khaag Budgam,” Ruksana said. “Here in Srinagar, nobody knew our work so it was difficult to gain their trust and get work here.”

Ruksana and her eldest sister could never see a school and two more sisters dropped out in class 10th. After studying till class 9th her brother, 18, too dropped out and joined his sisters in needle work on the table cloth. Presently only her youngest sister is studying, in class 7th.

The income of Rs 3000 of three siblings is insufficient to fund their food.  So, Rukhsana’s mother who is managing the family decided she should learn to tailor to improve the condition.

Before joining Al-Nisa, Ruksana says she never went out of her home alone. Initially, her mother or younger sister used to accompany her to the centre but she says since the Athrout gave all students with Abayas she feels confident and comfortable.

Ruksana joined Al-Nisa in March and a month later she could stitch the first suit. It took her three days to stitch it. “It could have been for my mother only. That gave me immense happiness when she touched and wore it. Those teary eyes I still remember when she said she will ask me frequently to stitch suits for her. Otherwise, she avoided stitching new suits fearing tailor may cost her more but she wanted to save that money for us.”

But their teacher, Safeera, 43, has almost a similar story.

Safeera’s father owned a charkha industry in Kashmir Haath, which went up in smoke one day. He couldn’t bear the stress and had a stroke. He was paralysed for eight years. Safeera has six sisters and their mother had passed away long back when she was in class 3rd.

Safeera’s three older sisters were married when their father had a stroke so ultimately the burden to run the family came on her. A class 7th student then, she along with her sisters continued studies with the help of school authorities. She says her stubbornness became the reason for her to start work too early and to refuse peoples’ help.

In the 1990s, her tailor-master used to pay her Rs 10 per suit. She used to take job works from him and complete them at home during the night. During days she used to study.  When she learned the art, her neighbours and relatives started approaching her.

Soon after, Safeera joined college but she got married same year. She couldn’t pursue her studies after that. She is the mother of three children now. Her eldest daughter is studying engineering, another daughter is in class 10th and her son is in class 5th.

Safeera’s husband is a fourth class employee in a government office but she never stopped working. Her husband met an accident in 2012 and had brain injuries. The cost of surgery was around Rs 2.50 lakhs. “I had to manage everything myself. I am thankful to God that I had this art and could run my family, before marriage and now after marriage as well,” she says.

Suraya, 44, is Safeera’s colleague. She is a widow. “Tailoring is a noble profession and for uneducated women, who cannot get a good job, it is a perfect job. It gives us the opportunity to work from home.”

But Athrout is planning to avail better options for Al Nisa students. After female clothes, these students will be trained to stitch male clothing as well. “And we are working on an online shopping website where we’ll put the clothes made by these girls on sale,” says Bashir Nadwi.

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