Slow fashion is a lifeline for women in the rural village of Bhikamkor in Rajasthan, India. Founded by Madhu Vaishnav in 2015, Saheli Women works with 75 skilled women who embroider and dye fabric and soon weaving textiles. They bring to life the visions of international designers. The women have learnt these income-generating skills — specifically embroidery — that contribute to their financial independence. They work in a safe working environment, earn fair wages, and many are the primary income earners in their homes.
We chatted with Madhu about her journey with slow fashion and about the organisation she founded.
How did your personal journey influence Saheli Women?
I come from a middle-class family where, like everyone woman in India, I faced many issues due to my gender. Not only that, but I was the third daughter of the family. My birth was a bit of a burden for my parents. I also have a dark skin tone which enhanced the problems.
As I grew older, I understood why my birth was a challenge for my parents. They faced several problems when it came to arranging my marriage as they didn’t have much dowry to pay and my skin tone was not considered very beautiful in Northern India. Finally, we found someone suitable and I got married. But there was a condition in my marriage that I has to be a housewife and would never work. Due to how difficult it had been for my parents to get me to this stage, they were happy to agree to any commitment at that time to get me married.
For years I was a housewife. I was completely financially reliant on my in-laws and I was not able to leave the house without permission. This affected my mental health and self-worth. After trying to be a very good housewife and daughter-in-law I realised I couldn’t make everyone happy and I certainly wasn’t happy. After months of interfamily arguments, I broke the contract and finally I got permission to leave the house for one hour every day, which I used to educate myself and learn English.
By this time, I had two children, before that I had no English, written or verbal. But my journey didn’t stop with learning English. I kept moving forward, bettering myself, and freeing myself from the constraints of my situation. I got a job teaching Hindi in an English medium school. It took me one and a half months and many arguments with my mother-in-law before she permitted me.
Whilst I was working in the school, I got a chance to work in an NGO for 5 years on the side. One day I saw an advert from UC Berkley offering a certificate course in Social Welfare. I applied for the course and got accepted. I went to the United States, studied, and when I came back, I started working in my village. That first project was Saheli Women.
What made you realise that you needed to start Saheli Women?
I have seen how due to my look, language (or lack thereof) and background, people would make fun of me and use derogatory words. But all my challenges and struggles have made me very strong. Because of my struggle, I can see first-hand how life can be difficult for ordinary women.
I realised how important it is to create financial freedom for women. I feel very proud that Saheli Women has become an extraordinary success, with 75 talented ladies who are now financially empowered. They make beautiful slow fashion garments, embroidery, and dying fabric and soon we will start to handloom our own fabric as the women have started to learn how to weave.
How do you use slow fashion to help the women you work with take charge of their own lives?
The United Nations has statistics that show that when a woman earns, she spends and reinvests 90% of her income back into the family. When it comes to Saheli Women, we have seen this to be true. When a woman earns and brings in the money, she immediately uses it to bring her family out of poverty.
The first thing she does with her money is take her children out of labouring jobs and puts them into education. All the women we employ become the backbone of their families. They bring in revenue, they buy healthy food for their family, and they can save money for difficult times.
So, I see slow fashion as a blessing. I feel that we have been blessed and our voice is being heard in the market. We are not labourers or workers, we are artisans. The language we use is very important. It mentally and culturally empowers us, and I see women and their children becoming more and more confident. Once a woman is earning, she has more respect and power to make decisions within the family.
Whilst my struggle was going on, my children witnessed everything. Because of this, they became so open-minded. They have grown up to be young men who respect women and see women differently from the cultural norm. I always feel when a woman is empowering herself, she is also empowering her family and children. I see this as an investment for our future generation.
How has Saheli Women helped to break down cultural barriers that affect women in India?
We have broken so many cultural norms which were very uncomfortable for many people in society. Initially, we were attacked with derogatory words because we were not deemed “ideal” women who followed the norm. Breaking the status quo was a challenge.
For example, when I gave the first smart mobile phone to one of the women, it was a huge issue for her. Her brother-in-law did not like it one bit and started spreading rumours. Men feel threatened by the shift in power. It’s not their fault, they have grown up in a society where women are not expected to have such power. They face their own difficulties too. They have to learn how to do their own chores, for example. It’s a big cultural shift which happens in the home and takes getting used to.
The pandemic, in a way, has blessed us. During the pandemic, the women became the main breadwinner whilst all the men stayed at home and lost their work. The women were still able to earn a sustainable livelihood during this crisis time and provided for their families with their own money. It helped change their entire position in society.
Why did you choose to focus on embroidery?
When I started Saheli Women I didn’t have a lot of money to invest. I had 10 000rupees [about R2200] and we didn’t have money to buy even one sewing machine. The only option we had was embroidery which didn’t require any machinery or large set-up costs. I went to the market and bought needles, thread and fabric off-cuts and that’s how we started.
It was a weakness that we didn’t have enough money to buy sewing machines, but our weakness became our strength in handmade work. Back then, I wasn’t aware of the slow fashion market, but hand embroidery was the best solution I had at that time.
Today, embroidery is one of our expertise. When a woman is embroidering a piece, we can see and feel her emotions in the embroidery of every stitch and can see her mood through the colour combination of what she chooses. Embroidery has become a medium for the women to express themselves.
Why is it important to highlight women-led initiatives like Fashion Impact Fund does?
It is very important to highlight the women’s journey because when the woman is growing, she is not growing alone, her family is growing with her. When she is coming out of the house and breaking societal norms, it is not easy for her. She faces challenges even from within her own house and family. She risks her safety due to the way she looks and talks. It’s very important their journeys, struggles, and successes are recognised so more women come out and do the same.
What is one of the biggest misconceptions about sustainable fashion that you challenge through your work?
I do not associate or link myself with the word “worker” or “labourer”. I think creating a garment is not a labour job, it is highly skilled. I would like the words and vocabulary used in the fashion industry to change, from “workers” and “labourers”, “worker rights” and “labourer rights”, to “artisans” and “artisan rights”.
Immediately, we become more empowered with this language. The current language is so colonial. It’s more than work. We shouldn’t be victims of the fashion world. We should be known as leaders in the fashion world. As soon as we are known as artisans with artisan rights, the perception shifts.
I strongly believe that people on a grassroots level know so much about sustainability. It is a core value of their life. They need a platform to use their voice and share their knowledge. So, they should be known as leaders of the fashion industry, not victims. We don’t need sympathy. We are very strong. We have our own voices and need to speak about our own journey. The power game needs to be changed and we need to be recognised on an equal level. We don’t want sympathy we want respect.
What is your favourite item in your wardrobe? And why?
My saris! I love wearing my saris. They are so beautiful. I feel like myself when I wear my sari.
Share one slow fashion resource for further learning.
We have got a lot of recognition from the Conscious Fashion and Lifestyle Network, part of the United Nations, so I would always start there, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals.
Apart from that, I would also suggest coming to India and asking questions. Visit the hand looms and talk to the artisans. Everyone would give you so much more information than a book or encyclopedia. Artisans have an immense amount of knowledge if you really want to learn about sustainability.
- Images supplied by Madhu Vaishnav and sourced on the Saheli Women website
- To learn more about Saheli Women, check out their website.
- Madhu Vaishnav is one of ten women fashion entrepreneurs who have been chosen for the Conscious Fashion Campaign: New York Fashion Week September 2022 edition. To learn more about the Conscious Fashion Campaign, click here.