The histories of clothing and women have always been interwoven. Women started expressing themselves and reclaiming their identities and agency over their bodies through their creativity in fashion. In South Asia, perhaps due to a patriarchal narrative, our mothers and grandmothers were often seen sewing buttons on shirts, knitting sweaters and even conducting small businesses stitching salwar kurtas and blouses from home when working outside as a woman was frowned upon.
Apart from empowerment, clothes were also a tool for women for liberation and equality. When the feminist movement started, suffragettes shopped in one place allowing them to be easily identifiable with the cause. The colours were purple for loyalty and dignity, white for purity, and green for hope. Later as the movement grew, burning bras became an iconic symbol for breaking free from patriarchal oppression.
Clothes were always a means of livelihood and a medium of expression for women to tell stories of their culture and beliefs. But somewhere along the line fast fashion took over and changed the system of fashion for the worse.
A group of women in the village of Bhikamkor, Rajasthan are on a mission to change that system. Saheli Women is a female atelier established on fair and inclusive principles, with the aim to create prosperity through livelihood opportunities. To achieve this, the women are empowered by lessons in traditional and modern embroidery techniques. The atelier is a fear-free creative place for them to work where they get the freedom to design their working hours and holidays.
It all started with Madhu Vaishnav, a young woman who was married at 23 and forbidden to work outside. After the birth of her two sons, Madhu started getting invested in their education, learnt English and even became a teacher. She worked for an American NGO for 5 years and while attending a wedding in Bhikamkor, she saw the disadvantaged women of the village trying to support their families by little means. So Madhu got a certificate in sustainable development and established humanitarian workshops in the village. Every woman in Bhikamkor owned a sewing machine that they were given as their marriage dowry, and Madhu saw this as an opportunity to start a fashion enterprise.
She founded the Institute for Philanthropy and Humanitarian Development (IPHD) that now manages the Saheli Women production facility for clothing, accessories and homeware out of its community center in Bhikamkor. Additionally, IPHD sponsors the educations of all the daughters of Saheli Women members, runs the only female health clinic in the village, and delivers workshops on a range of topics including human rights, feminism, menstrual hygiene, health, and financial literacy.
Saheli translates in Hindi to 'girl friend' and it reflects their mission of empowering women by creating employment for women in ethical fashion manufacturing to derive a sustainable livelihood that benefits themselves, their families and their communities.
The collective started partnering with national and international brands to produce designs and entire collections using traditional embroidery and dyeing techniques. The first one was with the Amsterdam-based brand Zazi Vintage in 2015 when the founder of the brand visited Bhikamkor for a collaboration. Since then, the collective has continued to play a central role in creating Zazi Vintage’s designs, including their 2021 collection, 'Healing Colours' highlighting the importance of natural dyeing processes. Saheli Women work exclusively with slow fashion brands like Eastern Soul, Akya Berlin, Indigo and Gachot among others.
Madhu along with her sahelis has created a powerful movement to undo the industrialization of ancestral craft. She demands respect and recognition for the women of Bhikamkor who create every garment with time, patience and ancestral knowledge, the same way brands get recognized. Through this collective, Madhu has shown the world a perfect example of the often attacked 'female freindship' that connects and powers women to lift other women in solidarity.