The hardest part about telling my story is that it isn't my story at all.
As the founder of a social enterprise I am constantly asked in interviews what inspired me to start my business. I work with conflict affected women in Northeast India, a total blind spot in our collective world view. Interviewers love a Eureka story - a market gap that sprung up from a miraculous, life changing moment of personal realisation.
My experience was a lot less like a light bulb coming on, and a lot more like a game of whack-a-mole. It came from banging my head against a proverbial wall, growing exasperated listening to reasonable requests in the field go unanswered. From having nightmares about the testimonies I’d collected, and grinding my teeth at the general ambivalence that the world held.
Basically, my Lifetime movie is going to suck. It will star a sweaty, angry Aussie girl scribbling notes and scratching her head, wondering why no one gives a shit about Northeast India. I started The Fabric Social because I wanted people to listen. Because I had to believe that people could care.
I first heard about the Northeast region when I read an article about women marching naked through the streets to protest a particularly violent rape and murder of a young woman at the hands of the armed forces. Their sign read “INDIAN ARMY RAPE US”. From where I sat at in my comfy office chair (and as someone who gets changed behind a towel at the gym) I was floored by these women brazenly breaking loose of the conservative customs that bound them.
My fascination with the Northeast only grew, and I couldn’t stop wondering why I had never heard about this place. I learnt that the states wedged between Bangladesh and Burma have suffered from half a century of insurgency and in-fighting, as 220 diverse ethnic groups come to terms with being handed over to the Indian state after independence.
When I moved to Delhi to follow this trail, I learnt how numerous backroads snaking in from Burma and China provide passage for cheap weapons for the disenfranchised men and women of the underground armies. A friend told me you can buy a grenade for $10 USD. Military impunity endures. Journalists are silenced. Activists disappear.
The problem was huge and complex, and I certainly didn’t know how to fix it. But I wanted to find a way to build something, to support these women who had unknowingly demanded my attention and diverted the path of my career with their stories of resilience.
I started The Fabric Social not because the injustice is palpable, but because the silence is deafening. I want to share stories from the ground, especially the unwritten stories of so many women who have been caught in the crossfire, trying to get by.
I want the world to know Bina, who saw a widow left behind after a bomb attack in Manipur and bought her a sewing machine so that she could survive. About how she has since rallied a network of over a thousand women to stand up for themselves, and each other.
I want the world to know Kaberi, who was the philosophical torchbearer of the underground movement. About how she is one of only two women in the ongoing peace negotiations between the United Liberation Front of Assam and the Indian government. About how she opened up her silk weaving cooperative to us.
I want the world to know her daughter Khamseng, who grew up living under multiple identities as a guerilla child, always on the run. About how both mother and daughter are talented poets.
I want the world to know Mira, who has big dreams for the future, to train young women back in her village how to weave and sew, so that they never end up like she did working indentured labour on a tea plantation.
I want them to know Kuki, whose mum was almost killed as a 9 year old child when an air strike hit their family home. How Kuki channels her blood, sweat and tears into creating opportunities for women. About how she is building a new production house from scratch to keep her local Mizo weaving traditions alive for generations to come.
I’ve worked for, with and alongside these women in building my social enterprise: they don’t work for me. My story is their story, and when asked how I came up with the idea to start The Fabric Social it would be a disservice to discount them.
I am dumbfounded as to why anyone would want to hear my story, and not theirs. I’m frustrated by the narrative that wants these women to be helpless and hopeless, waiting for me to swoop in with my magical idea and save the day. I’m sorry to disappoint, but it just didn’t happen that way.
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.