Intricate Embroidery from Afghanistan

Watching the 2001 Iranian film, Kandahar this week, I see the true story of Afghan-Canadian journalist, Nafas, desperately trying to find her way back to her birth city to save the sister left behind from her depression and threatened suicide. This tortured land has been named the worst place in the world to be a woman; depression is not surprisingAccording to a recent report, Afghanistan tops the planet in violence against women, holds an 87% illiteracy rate among women, reports 1 in 11 women dying in childbirth, tops all countries in forced child marriages, and denies the right of a woman to make, really, any decisions about her life. In the film, the heroine's arduous journey back to Kandahar is paved with land mines and artificial limbs, the wrath of the Taliban and the fear of everything. More than that, the film provides an hour and a half of seeing the world through the keyholes of a burqa. 

What I know is that in Kandahar, behind the veil of these massive oppressions, there is another woman who braved the same journey home. Rangina Hamidi, an Afghan woman growing up as a refugee in the US, took a turn away from her destined track to medical school, and chose to return to Kandahar to the sisters there who suffer from depression and powerlessness. Rangina founded a group of women who take needle and thread and centuries of culture learned from their mothers and who embroider for their lives. They embroider to feed their children, to send them to school, to stitch together enough self-respect and camaraderie to survive.

A member of Kandahar Treasures embroiders her own design; Rangina takes a woman's thumbprint as signature as the literacy rate for women is only 13%; a hopeful daughter among women in burqas. 

Last year in Charleston, Rangina and I pour over a book about her remarkable and fearless life founding this cooperative of women in Kandahar where her uncovered face is a moving target for any random terrorist with an assault rifle, and a heroine for women everywhere. Inspired by his daughter, Ghulam Hamidi also left the US to return to Afghanistan and became Mayor of Kandahar . . . until his life proved too westernized in the ways of freedom and love . . . he was executed by the Taliban. I turn to the picture of her father in the book and sense what a strong presence he remains in Rangina's life. I will not stop, she has said to me, and let the hate which killed him win.  

I turn to the page showing the progression of embroidery on a man's tunic as it is first outlined and slowly filled in with increasing complexity. Amazed I am at the intricacy of the fine skill, rendered in perfection. Stunned, really, by the refined sensibility that makes of each stage something elegant. And then a light bulb switches on.

This Khamak embroidery is so exacting and sublime, I am saying, that it must be seen up close. I'm thinking something small like a cocktail napkin that one appreciates in detail. Yes, yes. But what about a set of 4 napkins, each one telling the story of this embroidery in progression?

Rangina looks at the embroidery again, new eyes focusing on the modern and minimal beauty of the early stages, the lavish layered look upon completion, all of them extraordinary. Yes, we can do that, she says excitedly.  

And then we're off and running.  We begin to design other clean-lined neutral napkins for you minimalists, mirrored fuchsia ones for you of the boho-chic tribe, beautiful ones for those of you who just love a well-rendered thing.

L to R: Ibu ally and textile scholar, Mary Littrell, who felt compelled to write Rangina's story; Emmy award winning photographer, Paula Lerner, who gave herself to the project before succumbing to breast cancer in 2012; the book, Embroidering Within Boundaries, winner of the 2017 Independent Book Publishers Association Benjamin Franklin Silver Award (click here to purchase); Ghulam Hamidi, assassinated by a suicide bomber while performing his duties as mayor of Kandahar; Rangina Hamidi, who began Kandahar Treasures to bring employment and empowerment to women in Afghanistan.

We're moved, at Ibu headquarters, to sit and design with Rangina and personally touch - through her - the lives of these women living behind the veil.  It is a beginning only - so much still must be opened to the sky, so much must be righted and freed.  But with a stitch, and then another - women are earning bread for their children, learning to respect their own value in the world. That we love what they create, that we put our money upon it, that we go back to these women with more work to fulfill - that is our greatest gift to them. It is our own small way of journeying to the sisters left behind, and offering them a stitch and a hope.  

All the Best,

Susan Hull Walker