The Threads of Empowerment
Updated: Sep 21, 2022
Parinday : Manjuwara Mullah
Alivelihood: Social Enterprise & Community Rights Activism
Region: Barpeta, Assam
"I just knew something wrong is happening with women, and my life led me to a struggle of their liberation, my liberation."
A few tributaries of the Brahmaputra river flow near the beautiful town of Barpeta in Assam. The food, culture, and livelihoods practised here are organised around the island's ecology. Barpeta is mostly inhabited by Mia Muslims, a community that holds minority status and a complex history of religious marginalisation, identity loss, and being adversely affected by inequitable resource distribution and climate change. Many villages are surrounded by river islands known as 'Char-Chapori’. These villages are the worst affected by floods and erosion every year, making their settlement impermanent and highly volatile. Most women work as daily wage workers making fishing nets while others are engaged in agriculture.
Manjuwara Mullah hails from one such village in the Char area and belongs to the Mia community, marked by rigid economic and gender barriers. She had to fight for her education. As a child, she could see the predicament of early marriage, and something felt wrong to her. After her Bachelor's, she was forced to stop her education and get married. Finding a supportive partner allowed her to step out of these boundaries, and she joined an organisation working with poor urban women in Guwahati. Although she performed well there, she had to leave the job after facing discrimination for her pregnancy. Then, she moved back to her town to work on development issues with women in the Char Chapori areas. Due to neglect and unreachability, the area lacks access to a stable education and health infrastructure. She began her journey of self-identity, passion, and struggle from here. Together with her husband, she worked with the Jhar foundation, which worked closely with people in the Char areas on their socio-economic development, disaster management, setting up libraries, building better livelihoods, eradicating child labour, intervening in various ground-level issues etc. Manju was closely associated with the women of Char and worked on organising awareness campaigns for health and social-political rights, being vocal against child marriage, supporting women in education and fighting for equal wage pay. She was beginning to gain the trust of women in the area.
However, she still felt that something was lacking, that her efforts were not integrating into meaningful change on the ground, and that the gender reality remained structurally unchanged. The COVID-19 pandemic worsened the situation in Char in early 2020. As a community worker, Manju began receiving distress calls from women, who were daily wage workers, due to lack of income, food security, and growing domestic violence. Then, in 2020, came the worst flood disaster Assam had ever seen. The double predicament of the pandemic with flood created a crisis on the ground that required urgent interventions and relief work. Manju, with her team, procured aid and went to these islands with supplies filled in a boat. Anxiety was building up with the scale of the disaster. Manju sketches from her memory that "on an 80x80 ft platform, there were around 800-900 people and 400-500 animals, with pregnant women, adolescent girls, and disabled people all living in such inhumane conditions." She would heave a deep sigh, sit on the boat, and come back. She recalls that when coming back from relief work, eating or resting, she would have flashbacks of the faces of those girls, pregnant women, and hungry children, which pushed her into an emotionally weak state. Any relief they managed to provide was negligible considering the large-scale crisis. During her fieldwork, women would come to her and share their feelings. Questioning how long they would be provided with ration, the women began to ask Manju to think of more sustainable work so that they could gain long-term security.
Manju picked up a plain white bedsheet and started embroidering floral patterns on it to cope with the stress. She states, "An immense sense of calm enveloped me even as I etched the outline of a flower in red wool. Inspired, I began to work late into the night. Following the legacy of my mother and grandmother, layering old fabric between embroidered sheets to create a kheta or quilt." Traditionally known as Katha stitch, this craft is well etched into the hands, hearts, and memories of women in this region of Assam. They used to make various fabrics for use at home and gifting and learned this skill from their female ancestors. But as the work done by women is neglected, this art was also submerged and limited to something done in free time and not acknowledged as a very valuable skill that women hold with them.
Wondering how she can help these women, Manju realised that this is a traditional skill that the women in this community are well-versed in and have done previously. Why not acknowledge it and convert it into a livelihood for these women? She shared her idea with the charwomen of her team and received a positive response from all stakeholders. This resulted in the organisation of a women's self-help group and a collective to stitch and sell khetas, named ‘Amrapari’, which means ‘We can’. First established in Rupkuchi village, located between the Beki and Chaulkhowa rivers, five women became a part of the group. They were daily wage labourers who had hope in this attempt. Manju started by procuring raw materials (e.g., fabric, embroidery thread, and sewing supplies) and provided basic training to the five women.
Manju shared a few products made by the women on social media. As with any good movement, the work expanded as women gained dignity and a stable share of money through this livelihood. The collective has grown in strength and range of craft, with over 70 artisans now associated with Amrapari. They have established an office where all administration and design work is done and they gratefully receive orders from customers throughout the country, whose income goes to these artisans. Manju states, "We continue to expand our repertoire of designs, patterns and colours. For a group of 5-6 women, it takes 5-6 days to stitch a kheta while doing all their housework and meeting other caregiving responsibilities." She adds that the work speaks for itself, and their dreams are beautifully woven as Katha stitches by the hands of these artisans.
Manju notes a decrease in domestic violence in the places where Amrapari has helped with livelihood building. The women today value their skills, feel dignified about their work, earn for their families, and want equal status in the household. They no longer stand silently before violence. Now, their husbands sometimes help with stitching or caring for the children while the artisan works. Manju was overjoyed while sharing this. Amrapari enables her to intervene more effectively on the ground and revive women's traditional skills. It will take time to break deep-rooted patriarchal and economic patterns. Furthermore, a highly mechanised market is also a challenge. Changes in market patterns towards developing and valuing such products might strengthen the collective. Manju's desire for designing Katha and the changes she sees in women's lives stimulates her work with hope and determination. She wants to work on including more rural artisans in Amrapari and create new designs to offer to people.
Economic empowerment is not the final aim, but it is an effective tool to engage the community and spark a vision for women's welfare and liberation, resulting in community upliftment. As the sun sets on the beautiful stretches of Char, the wind carries women's smiles, moving into a better tomorrow with a more honourable present. And Manju, being one of them, chose to lead this women's struggle with compassion as it is not just a social issue for her but a way of life itself. Amrapari is a much-needed redefinition of women's empowerment in India. Manju is an example of what lived experience, traditions, right guidance, and genuine compassion mean for our lives and community.
Manjuwara Mullah can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow them on social media: https://www.instagram.com/amrapariassam/