As she travels around her Karachi – Pakistan’s largest city – negotiating deals with buyers, Salma seems like the pinnacle of female achievement. Indeed, she is: the mother of three is her family’s breadwinner, earning more than her husband, who proudly supports her success.
But Salma lives in the poor Gulshan section of Karachi, where husbands rarely allow their wives to leave the house. That used to be Salma’s life too. “The most important thing you need to know is that I’m not afraid of my husband anymore,” Salma explains. Indeed, Imtiaz greeted me smiling as I walked towards their one-bedroom house. He was leaving because Salma was gathering a group of women at home, and their husbands wouldn’t approve of them being in a house together with another man.
Salma is a pioneer in Karachi’s growing brigade of housewives turned textile entrepreneurs. “Karachi has a huge number of poor, illiterate women,” explains Amneh Sheikh, program manager at the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Institute ECDI, a Karachi incubator for female entrepreneurs. “The urban poor are more conservative than the rural poor, and in their neighbourhoods, there’s also a lot of ethnic tension and violence.”
ECDI, founded and run by Skeikh’s mother, Perveen, has adopted a novel strategy to help these women. “It doesn’t work if you say to the men, ‘educate your women and let them leave the house,’” says Sheikh. “We say, ‘I’m giving your wife an opportunity to do something she does anyway and make money on it. She doesn’t even have to leave the house.’”
Many of Karachi’s impoverished women are expert seamstresses. During their hours indoors, using traditional techniques, they sew and embroider stunning clothes. Until recently, they only used the clothes for their families. ECDI, however, trains them in fashion trends, teaches them where to buy supplies in bulk, how to set prices, and connects them with buyers and retailers. “The women have excellent design instincts, but they don’t know what sells,” says Amneh. “We don’t do charity, we don’t do subsidies. This is pure business. 10,000 women are now earning an income thanks to our programme.”
Salma now heads a corps of 45 seamstresses, whose goods are sold in Khaadi, Pakistan’s equivalent of the Gap, and other mid-market stores. Some clothes are even sold in Canada and Italy.
Not all husbands are as supportive as Salma’s, though. “My husband doesn’t know I’m here”, confesses Bukhrag, a 27-year-old mother of four. “I snuck out with my mother-in-law.” Bukhrag is illiterate, and the family is too poor to send her children to school. “I don’t earn a lot of money doing this, but it’s better than nothing. I’d like to be like Salma one day, but my husband wouldn’t allow it. I’m telling you, he’s not very nice.”
Women like Bukhrag give their goods to Salma, who negotiates and sells them to shops and chains. “Thanks to the classes they know how to make a profit,” says Perveen Sheikh. “I love the word profit!” Truth be told, the profit margin in Pakistan’s middle-brow clothing shops isn’t huge. But the fact that these women are earning an income is revolutionising the financial situation not just of their families but also of their neighbourhoods. “Fashion in Pakistan provides employments to hundreds of thousands of homes,” notes veteran fashion journalist Mohsin Sayeed, a co-owner of clothing label The PinkTree. “That’s more than the politicians do.”
Pakistan’s low-income housewives, in fact, hold a crucial key to sustainable development in a country whose economy relies primarily on agriculture and remittances from Pakistanis living abroad. And fashion on the other side of the couture spectrum is invigorating the economy as well. Karachi’s fashion week, launched in 2009, is now a well-attended international event. Designer Naushaba Brohi, a former head of Fashion TV Pakistan, combines both worlds by collaborating with rural women for her label, Inaaya. “Women do a lot of it during the season between sowing and harvesting,” she explains. “I decided that what was needed was a contemporary take on traditional design. I wanted to elevate craft to couture.”
Though less than two years old, Inaaya is already a success at luxury boutiques in Pakistan’s major cities. Sometimes, after driving seven hours to collect the couture pieces, Brohi finds that they aren’t finished: “The women say, ‘there has been a death in the family’, or ‘my husband threw a fit’,” she says. But attitudes are changing, reports Brohi: “I go there every three weeks, and each time there’s a new group of women that wants to work with me. They even courier designs to me.”
Back in Karachi, Imtiaz is an unlikely economic crusader in his own right. “Other men laugh at him,” says Salma. “They say he’s under the control of his wife because he doesn’t make me wear a burka. But he pays them no attention.” Soon, when their living standards rise thanks to their wives’ income, the men may follow Imtiaz’s example.
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