We humans

How embroidery is helping women in Pakistan stand up to honor killings and inequality

Oct 9, 2014 /

Khalida Brohi (TED Talk: How I work to protect women from honor killings) grew up traveling between two very different parts of Pakistan: the bustling city of Karachi, where her parents moved so that she and her sisters could go to school, and a small village in Balochistan, where her family has its roots. Brohi got a modern education, and also developed a deep reverence for her tribal traditions. Those two threads often tangled — especially when it came to the treatment of women.

As a teenager, Brohi watched as, one by one, her childhood friends entered arranged marriages, sometimes against their will. When she was 16, she received word that a close friend had been murdered by her family in an “honor killing.” She set her mind on starting a movement to stop these practices. But as it gained momentum, it also spurred a backlash.

“We were challenging centuries-old customs in these communities. They stood up, saying we were spreading un-Islamic behavior,” she says. “We were standing against the core values of people, challenging their code of honor and hurting them deeply in the process.”

So Brohi did something outrageous: she apologized. She asked the communities for forgiveness — and then asked for her tribal leaders to support her in an effort to promote one of their prized traditions: embroidery. She got them on board with the idea of establishing a center in the village where women could get together and stitch. While these women gathered to learn and work, in a rare moment without male supervision, Brohi and her team offered information about their rights along with instruction in this ancient art. By creating these embroidery centers, called the Sughar Empowerment Society, Brohi has had more of an impact than she ever could have imagined.

Brohi shared her story at TEDGlobal 2014. We spoke to her before she spoke. Below, an edited transcript of our conversation.

You were the first girl in your tribe to get an education and, in your talk, you mention having both a sense of freedom and also a real sense of guilt. How did you navigate those feelings?

I felt very, very guilty. It’s not easy having things that other people do not have, and having to witness that reality on a daily basis. I felt like I had to do things to make it up to other kids, like reading them stories from my favorite book of fairy tales or showing them pictures of the different worlds that I knew. I would teach some kids how to read, which was a challenge that gave me peace of mind. Finally, at 16, I realized what I needed to do for my community.

What happened that snapped it into focus for you?

It happened so far away, but it still comes back to me instantly. It still hurts. My friend was murdered by her own family. She wanted to marry someone she liked, and she had proposed that idea to her mother. Her mother, who was very scared, frantically shared this news with her father. They planned her murder by taking her away from home and killing her. No one knew. I found out when a group of little kids came and told me, “Your friend is dead.” That was a huge trauma, and it led me to stop everything that I was doing and start this.

I sometimes think: what a blessing it was that I was 16. In your teenage life, you think that you can actually do something really huge. I came up with this idea to end a centuries-old custom, and never imagined myself getting into trouble.

How did you get the campaign to end honor killings off the ground?

I started naming people who were involved. I was out there in the streets, going door to door — I started in my neighborhood. It was very hot in Balochistan and I would wear a long veil, and go to friends’ houses and tell people that we need to do something about this. Slowly, groups would gather at my house. We launched the “Wake Up! Campaign Against Honor Killings.”

I was getting all these calls from the media,  and I was very excited about how people were talking about me and about this campaign. I never realized that exposure doesn’t mean success. People started approaching my father — and it was depressing that they went to him instead of to me. They called him and said, “Your daughter — we have always told you to not give her an education and not to give her freedom. Now she is using it against us, against our customs. She’s becoming un-Islamic.” My dad had to do something. He would tell me about the calls, and I would never believe him. I was in 9th grade and I had exams — but I was mostly away from class, because I was so compelled to do this work. My dad said, “I won’t come in between your work if you promise to me that you will go to school.” I think it was a strategy on his part, because he thought that it would never become something big.

People started throwing pebbles and stones at our house. They would break our property. That is when I had to leave. I went back to Karachi. A lot of journalists were still calling me, and making me feel like this great leader — but everyone left me. In early 2009, I was ready to give up. I was 17-years-old, and my dad was like, “You’re not moving from here until graduation.”

How did you re-approach the tribal community?

I had brought some of my cousins into the work — one of my male cousins actually inspired other men to join. When everything ended with Wake Up! campaign, a few of my cousins were still telling me that if I took any step, they would be with me. We came up with this idea of apologizing. My father had chosen to take me from the city to the village when we were little, just so that we could have our traditions. I knew how much those traditions meant to him, and I knew that the same was true for the tribal leaders.

We told the tribal leaders that we were going to promote their traditions instead of fighting them. We wanted to have them sit with us, talk with us. I proposed bringing a CD that compiled their amazing songs. We made a book with stories of their tribe. The third thing we wanted to promote was their embroidery, by making a center inside the village where all of the women would come and make embroidery every day. The plan was to get their approval.

This was not a normal thing for these leaders to hear. At first, everyone laughed at us. The leaders were like, “You haven’t learned your lesson yet? Are you trying to trick us?” We told them that we are very genuine. And we were. I wear my traditional dress everywhere. In Karachi, we went to school with kids who wore jeans. If those kids had said to me, “Your embroidered dress is so weird,” I would have been ready to fight them. That’s exactly what we had done in the communities — we had told them that they were not cool. That their values were bad. So we were really ready to promote their traditions. But in the meantime, we knew as a team that if women were coming to a center, in addition to making embroidery, we could have them go through a whole course of life-changing education. We wanted them to learn what Islam says about their rights.

What does Islam say about women’s rights?

That men and women should be equal. Our Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said that they should be shoulder to shoulder, so it is very much emphasized that women should be equal to men.

There were many times inside the centers when women found out what their rights were — that when they’re sick, their husbands should take them to the hospital or that they should be allowed to go by themselves. The women would be very angry. They were like, “Oh my god, let me talk to him today.” We said, “We are not teaching this so that one gender should have more freedom than the other. We are doing this so that both of you are balanced.”

Women enter a Sughar Center.
Women enter a Sughar Center. Photo via The Sughar Empowerment Society.

You’ve said that Sughar is part embroidery and part empowerment. How do those fit together?

Inside the center, we actually teach three things. The first is enterprise development. The second is life skills, with education on women’s rights. And the third is traditional embroidery. We have chapters on all three. Local facilitators teach the women for six months.

We’ve also learned that we have to teach men as well as women. For men, we had to come up with something really amazing, because men weren’t very interested in our work. We came up with the idea of cricket tournaments. We started bringing in different cricket teams that were famous in the area, and inviting the men from the villages to watch the match. And we would have one of our team members do the announcing. Our team member was taught that — in the middle of the game, when everyone is very excited about what’s going to happen next — that’s the time to start talking about women’s rights. Since everyone wants to know what’s going to happen, they don’t want to move. A majority of the men sit there, watch the game, and listen to these messages that are very important for them to hear. We’ve seen that these messages are having a very slow impact on them. They go to the markets and they say, “Hey, did you hear that in Islam…”

The other thing we do for men is a monthly meeting. We ask men the question, “What have you done for your women this month?” It can be, “I gave her two pills for a headache.” And they are really proud to share this. Every month, even if it’s two men sharing things, we make it such a big deal. We clap for them and show what a hero they are. Every month, more men get inspired. When they tell that story in front of everyone, the whole village claps for them.

How did you learn embroidery?

As a child, I’d see all my aunties sit every day at 2 p.m. — after lunch was done and they had cleaned the house — and sing as they did embroidery. In my tribe, there are many, many songs and the women all sing to each other as they embroider. I would be playing, and my grandmother would pull me aside and make me sit down. She would tell me that no one would marry me if I didn’t do embroidery. As a 9-year-old, I had to learn all the patterns. She was thinking that I would get married at 11, and because I was soon to be a bride, I needed to know this.

the older women are not able to talk, but the embroidery is talking for them. They speak through something they’re creating.

In the villages, women are not allowed to speak a lot. They’re not allowed to laugh loudly, because it’s immodest. So I’ve always been really curious what people are thinking when they’re silent. When I was sitting with older women and they were silent, I realized that they were using these patterns. They would use extremely bright colors — yellow, orange and dark red. They’re not able to talk, but the embroidery is talking for them. They speak through something they’re creating. They would create something for their daughter’s dowry, and it was all like colors exploding from the dress.

When I grew up and Sughar came into shape, I realized that women want to talk. They want to share the stories that mean so much to them. Embroidery can do that for them.

How many Sughar centers are there?

We have 23 Sughar centers for now — 13 in Balochistan and 10 in Sindh province. We are opening two more in the next few weeks.

What does one look like inside?

Usually, we ask the tribal leader to help us find the poorest person in the village, and then we rent a room from them. So the rooms are usually small and dark. But we’ve started working with TripAdvisor, who funded the building our own Sughar centers in two villages. The tribal leaders gave us land and TripAdvisor helped us build huge halls — with so many windows and a bathroom attached. Women are not just using the space for classes. They sit here, making embroidery and talking to each other, as the kids play. The best part is that a lot of organizations have started using this as a place for training — for farmer education, solar energy workshops. It’s amazing for them to find a huge hall inside the village.

Women at the Zughar Center in Umerkot, Pakistan.
Women at the Sughar Center in Umerkot, Pakistan. Photo via The Sughar Empowerment Society.

How did that partnership happen?

I spoke at Google in 2012. It was a very sensitive time in my life, because my dad wanted me to stop my work. Also, our office had recently been bombed. I was in the office and five minutes after I left, it got bombed. We lost everything. So I asked Google not to publish the talk, and everyone there was asked not to share any information about what I said. Because of the seriousness of the situation, a lot of organizations wanted to help.

What feels different now versus that moment in 2012 when you didn’t want your story shared?

Back then, I thought that I was speaking against my father. He’s the reason that I’ve had an education and have gotten so many freedoms and am able to do so much. His trust in me, and his love, are everything.

In late 2012, I apologized to him. I talked to him about his fears with me doing this work. Some were very personal fears — like my [not finding a] marriage, or not being able to provide for myself in the future because I don’t take salary. He also said that, every time they are home, it’s “something happened to the hall,” or “people have attacked their village office.” He said, “I can’t take that anymore.”

After that conversation, I have had a lot more confidence to speak out on this issue.

You shared in your talk that you founded a fashion line, so that women at Sughar are able to become breadwinners in their families. How did you decide to turn this into a financial enterprise?

As an 18-year-old, I thought that no one would find out that we were teaching women about empowerment. But the men found out, and soon some women were not allowed to come to the center anymore. That’s when we came up with the idea of launching a fashion brand, so that the women could actually earn money. So that the men would let their women go to the center — because they needed the money.

This has been the funniest part of our journey. I am from a village. I work with other people from villages, because our work is so community-oriented. When we decided to launch a fashion brand, I looked at my team and thought, “This is not going to be easy.” We did our research about the fashion industry. We met with models, designers, we went into stores. We would dress up in really fashionable stuff — high heels — and pretend to know more than we did. I would tell my team, “Just act like you know everything about fashion.”

Pakistan’s fashion industry is growing quickly. There’s so much money that goes into it and so much that comes out of it. We thought, “Since we are all weird village people, let’s do something really strange.” We announced to the media that we were going to launch Pakistan’s first-ever fashion brand created by rural communities. It became so much bigger than I ever thought. We ended up getting a lot of attention from young people in Pakistan, who thought this was cool.

Some things just don’t make sense in the fashion industry. Things really took off when we started creating products that were a little bit more expensive. It brought more income to the women than they had been earning.

How are the women at Sughar paid?

In the beginning, we were trying to be the designers, the producers, everything. The designs came out nice because we were sitting with women and asking them to tell us stories from the village. From those stories, we selected symbols — like a dancing camel. We paid the women per product. We thought we’d produce a lot, and then sell it all at once.

This was our biggest failure. We lost a lot of money, and had to pay the women from our own pockets. We needed to move to a model where, if the product is not sold, it’s not the women’s fault, but it’s also not ours. So after a year, we started doing a per-hour wage structure. Now we have three categories: skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled. We have a rate for each. They can work eight hours per day. For every product, we know how many hour it takes to make. The purse that we are most famous for — it has a lot of embroidery on it and takes 11 hours.

Does it feel different for the woman to go from doing embroidery socially, to having it be something they do for a living?

A lot of women were not ready for their work to be for sale. They felt like their work was a part of them, a part of their body. In a lot of villages, their creation would usually not go into the hands of some other man — because when you touch something a woman made, it’s like touching the woman herself. This was a mindset that we had to get rid of. We had to show the women that their product is not really theirs, but the customer’s.

For a long time, the women had only been making products for their daughters and dowries. They had only made dresses, and we were asking them to make the same design as a purse. They were like, “So our honor is going as a handbag? Who would make their honor into a handbag?” I was like, “Just try it.” It brought in a lot of income, and soon everyone was making their dress pattern into a handbag.

You had a fashion show? What was that experience like?

The fashion show launched our whole program. Some designers were kind enough to help us produce it. I couldn’t believe it — I was on a ramp with the models. We brought tribal women from the mountains into Karachi into a really big hall. Some of the women were scandalized because some of the models were wearing half sleeves — and some dancing also happened.

I just remember how much it meant to me to create bridges between these two worlds. At the fashion show, I saw a village woman showing some colors she had woven into the embroidery to a fashion designer. They were coming from two very different worlds, but they were laughing with each other about how one color dominated the other colors. It was so amazing.

Over the past few years, Malala Yousafzai has become very well-known in the United States. [Watch the TED Talk from her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai.] What do you make of her becoming an international hero?

I think it’s amazing. The last time I saw her was two months before she got shot. We were both in Islamabad, receiving an award for excellence. She was very happy, full of life — a really young girl with real maturity. After that, I was actually speaking at Google when we found out she had been shot. I was scared that she was going to die, like Benazir Bhutto. With Benazir Bhutto’s death, I thought we lost Pakistan’s future. The whole city was very sad, and we knew that things were going to be very different. When Malala was shot, I thought, “Pakistan won’t survive.”

But it turns out it became such a huge deal. It’s such a miracle that she’s actually showing the Taliban what a real leader is. Pakistan’s younger generation is increasing in percentage every day. Young people will shape this country — I see myself as part of a big campaign for our future. I know that things are going to be very, very different and amazing for my country.

What don’t people from the West understand about Pakistan?

They don’t know that Pakistan has so many different cultures — that there are so many different languages, colors, dances and foods that they need to discover. I read recently that Pakistan is a secret tourist destination. It’s about time that people started discovering it.

What are you most excited for in heading to Brazil for TEDGlobal?

I am just so honored, and excited for Rio itself. I have eight siblings, all younger than me, so we’re always watching Disney movies. We were watching Rio, and I was thinking, “I can’t believe I’m going there!”

What has been the hardest part of writing your TED Talk?

Summarizing all the details. Sometimes, it feels like every day of my life has been a decade. Also, it was so hard to put my emotions on paper. I eventually started standing up, closing my eyes, and imagining 4,000 people in front of me — and then writing down what I said. So the talk doesn’t feel like a written one.

Featured image via The Sughar Empowerment Society.