In the midst of a heated argument with a particular doe-eyed friend some years ago, I scoffed at her insistence that “literally anyone, however disadvantaged, can change the course of their own destiny and, with a strong enough conviction, become whomever they want to be.” She cited a general example of supermodels scouted from the dusty plains of sub-Saharan Africa, dolled up and dragged onto the runways of London and Milan. I believe this to be a convenient rhetoric of the privileged, a meritocratic manifesto that simply soothes and qualifies our own achievements as somehow gained purely through hard graft and perseverance. When, in fact, all the opportunities lay beside us in the crib, barely concealed in the sandpit; the formula for success scrawled across the chalkboards of our classrooms.
Five years on from that debate I am astounded to discover that my friend, though mostly wrong, wasn’t entirely wrong. On a volunteering trip to Nepal, postearthquake, I had the fortune of being introduced to a most exceptional creature by the name of Nasreen Sheik. While girls in their mid-teens were being forced to marry the brutish, ill-educated men of her village, Nasreen was so horrified by her future that she found a way out. She has instead made it her life’s work to train local women in a variety of handicrafts which she distributes wholesale to retailers around the world. The enterprise provides Nepali women with independence and a small salary, enabling them to break free from the bonds of forced and abusive marriages.
A Muslim woman of unknown age, Nasreen thinks she may have been born around 1991, making her 24 today. Even her mother doesn’t know the date of her birth, of any of her daughters’ births. This is no freakish phenomenon in the remote provinces of South Asia, just as it was not uncommon in the western world only last century.
The women in Nasreen’s Indian village of Rajura, on the border with Nepal, have a level of literacy that allows them to read the Q’uran in Arabic. They have access to no other reading material, least of all textbooks as an education is strictly forbidden. Nasreen became the exception and managed to escape Rajura and her destiny. In the face of unfathomable oppression from within her own family and community this one tiny woman found the courage to stand up for her human right to liberty.
Around the age of 11 Nasreen begged her brother to take her with him to Kathmandu where he operated a small sewing business. The Kathmandu Valley was her first sighting of a mountain and, having never seen a building above one storey high, she wondered why the houses were studded with so many doors – she was in fact looking at their windows. Nasreen cooked and cleaned for her brother and learned to sew. But when the work dried up he could no longer afford to keep her and she would have to be sent back to her parents in the village where she knew her time would come soon to be married. In the days before she was due to return home the 11 year old took to the streets in desperation. With tears in her eyes she watched the other children, in their uniforms and satchels, trundling merrily off to school, and yearned to be amongst them.
Spying an American man walking the streets of Kathmandu Nasreen instinctively grabbed his hand. Startled, he looked down at this child who appealed to him in the little English she had so far gleaned, “Please, Uncle, you have to help me!” Uncle? “Yeah, I don’t know why I called him that, it just popped out” she says with a look of surprise as though it happened only yesterday.
We are drinking tea on the carpet of the small apartment Nasreen shares with her younger sister, Saheen, above the Local Women’s Handicraft shop in Kathmandu. “I watched my older sister enter a forced marriage and knew I would be next” says Nasreen. But her new American friend “started teaching me English. Over the next 12 years he introduced me to computers and the internet, along with mathematics, philosophy, religion and the arts. With this knowledge I was empowered and continue to build the sewing collective, Local Women's Handicrafts.”
A free, unmarried woman, now living in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, Nasreen says she does not believe in organised religion. Having wrestled free from the clutches of her culture and imminent marriage to a faceless man she had never met, Nasreen no longer has a relationship with her parents but she sees her mother as just another victim of circumstance, of ignorance and extreme conservatism in a patriarchal society. Nasreen accepts it’s hard to hold her mother personally accountable for not protecting her.
She explains that in her community women are kept illiterate as a means of controlling them. They are forbidden from laughing, singing or expressing themselves in any way. “
As a child I grew up witnessing the terror on the faces of the women in my village. I remember one vivacious woman who, one day, wore make-up which her husband considered garish. The next day she was found hanging and buried immediately without ceremony. The usual custom would be to wait say, two days before burial and hold a funeral to honour the dead but this woman’s body just disappeared. Everyone knew she had been murdered by her husband and he remarried within months.”
Episodes like this one were so alarming to the little Nasreen growing up, as they would have been for all young girls, but what lead her to understand that this was unacceptable? How could she have known the possibility of an alternative? What compelled her to leave while other women stayed caged? That’s the bit that boggles me. She is so bright and articulate. Each time I meet her she is radiant. I ask her how someone undergoing so much hardship can remain so apparently joyous and open. “We are beginning to learn the mathematics of giving” she replies “getting back in joy what you can give others in salvation.”
Kabita Didi was forced into a marriage with an alcoholic gambler who was never able to provide for Kabita and their son. She says, since joining Local Women’s Handicrafts “I am getting better. I am very happy for Nasreen and her bravery in cancelling her forced marriage. I was unlucky to lack her energy in fighting for it. We need to have bravery: I didn't have it yet, so I suffered, but I want to tell other women to never give up. If you feel something is going wrong with your rights fight for it. This life is so precious; don't waste your precious time with a person who is not made for you.”
With the help of her American friend Nasreen attended college in Himachal Pradesh. She had always wanted to study Astronomy but conceded that Business would be the more practical option to ensure her financial independence. By the time she reached the age of marriage her parents came to Kathmandu to collect her and bring her back to the village. She immediately approached several NGOs in Nepal assisting women under this very threat but was met with the excuse that, for one reason or another, she did not meet their criteria to receive aid and assistance. Mighty Nepal, among others, actually hung up on her when she called them. Still Nasreen summoned the courage to defy her parents, who would face a huge degree of shaming within the Muslim community. The village believed that their daughter’s audacity would infect other girls and cause chaos to the order of their archaic traditions. Furious at her defiance her father launched a campaign of verbal and physical abuse upon his daughter. Finally her brother offered the village elders a bribe of $400 to proclaim the young girl mentally unstable and unfit for marriage. It was the only way he could see to extricate her from the bargain.
“Dowry is important. With girls and marriage it is like selling and buying. The more money the better. They are a commodity. Women are treated as possessions and have no rights.”
She remained in Kathmandu slowly building her business, recruiting women to make clothing and handicrafts, and today, with foreign donations she has been able to buy a small amount of land on which to erect a bamboo and tin shelter that serves as a factory where the women go each day from 9am to 6pm to sew, weave and work handlooms. Nasreen trains 20 women per year on a monthly salary of initially $40, later increased to $60 with a commission on top for piecework. Some earn up to $200 monthly.
A more permanent concrete structure is half way built and is currently being wired for electricity. A bio-gas system will serve in place of traditional plumbing and recycle waste to create a natural energy source. She hopes to gain funding to also construct a temporary refuge for the most urgent cases, women and their children fleeing domestic persecution and requiring immediate shelter.
As I wandered around smiling at the women and ogling their work, repeating the Nepali words I can count on one hand, one of them insisted I sit down with her and learn to make a dreamcatcher. It took me quite a few goes to get the hang of the thread, pulling and looping around the circular frame under the watchful and inquisitive eyes of five or six curious ladies, but eventually I gained a new appreciation for the work that goes into crafting a seemingly trite, decorative trinket. One lady whose name was Ronana didn’t initially see the humour in my nicknaming her “Banana” but as the others giggled in her direction Ronana eventually cracked a smile. Phew! It’s difficult to let yourself go and indulge a smile when such a normal emotion has been deemed a crime, when delight in human connection has eluded you from your birth.