I chat with Mira on a shady Autumn afternoon in Lakwa, the village where she has spent her whole life. Mira has her hands clasped politely on the desk in front of her, and looks at me with a tentative smile.
Mira is a weaver with Srishti Handlooms, our local Assamese partners for The Fabric Social. Before we came along, the looms lay mostly dormant and weaving training had largely ground to a halt. On this visit, all the machines are occupied, and the sweet clack clacking percussion of the shuttle loom fills the air.
Lakwa was once a stronghold of the Assamese liberation movement, but Mira doesn’t focus on that. When I ask what her childhood was like, she says she doesn’t want to badmouth the place where she grew up. I don’t push it.
Mira explains to me that her mum died when she was young. She doesn’t know much about her, except that she was a good woman. When Mira was 15, it was her turn to take over household duties, as her siblings had moved out when they got hitched. She dropped out of school in 10th grade and worked on a tea plantation. The minimum wage for unskilled tea workers in Assam is 250 rupees per day, just under 4 USD.
After two years, Mira got the chance to go back and earn her high school certificate, but a week before final exams her father passed away. Devastated and newly orphaned, Mira never finished school.
Unwilling to go back to the tea plantation, Mira found some part time work with a local tailor, a job for which she found she had natural skill, stitching flawlessly by hand and learning the pattern cutting quickly. After this became tedious, she asked the tailor to teach her more skills, to let her learn measuring and sewing on the machine. Instead of investing in her burgeoning skills, he fired her, fearing in the small community, Mira would be competition.
“In the village I trained in cutting and I was really interested in the work. But when I went for cutting classes, I stitched in such a way that people were scared of me and what I could achieve,” Mira says. The teachers didn’t let her carry on.
Mira thought she could start a shop, but was never in a position where she could afford the machine, which at the time cost 4000 rupees, or 60 USD.
It was at this point that Mira came across Srishti Handlooms, a local weaving collective who were looking for women to train. Unfortunately, all the weaving places were taken. When she came to visit the unit, she saw that there was a broken, unused loom in the corner. Desperate, she offered to fix the loom herself, and that’s how she got in. "It was difficult but I completed the whole chador. Now I felt like I could weave anything!”
That was three years ago, around the same time that The Fabric Social came to Assam. Since then, Mira has become one of our star weavers, pumping out our flagship eri silk and khadi cotton blend on the regular. Since we are now able to place back to back orders, Mira and women like her are able to save and start planning for their futures.
So I ask Mira what she is looking forward to in the years to come, and what ideas she has for social change. She knows lots of young women back at her village who are languishing financially, just as she was not long ago, who can’t return to finish their high school diploma because they simply can’t afford it.
Typical of people who have grown up in village life, she doesn’t name a single thing she would spend on herself, if money were no object. Mira doesn’t fear competition; she wants to encourage skills development, and having a loom and sewing machine at home would mean she can burn the midnight oil teaching young women the skills she has learnt.
I read somewhere once that if you help one woman out of poverty she will typically bring four others with her. I don’t know where this number came from, but you need only to look to Assam to see that it is true. Mira is just one of the amazing women working at the weaving centre, with a fire in their belly and ideas for creating tangible change.
Fi is the Co-Founder of The Fabric Social, a social enterprise working exclusively with women affected by armed conflict, displacement and other insecurity. The Fabric Social work to transform one of the greatest causes of poverty: armed conflict. You can shop, donate, or get involved here.