It’s taken a while for me to digest our fundraising tour – both mentally and in terms of paneer intake. In November my Co-Founder Sharna and I ran our first trip to Northeast India, with the aims of raising a little cash for The Fabric Social weaving operations, and taking some visitors to a part of the world that even the most ‘off the beaten trail’ India tourists seldom venture.
The Northeast is a sight-seeing Atlantis. It has sub-tropical elephant-filled jungle, hundreds of traditional hill tribe kingdoms gripping on to their ancient cultures, jaw-dropping snow capped mountains and lakes that would knock any Scot’s tartan socks off.
The reason no one goes beyond the Siliguri corridor is because of the dozens of separatist insurgencies and internal clashes that have plagued the region for decades. But times are a-changing, and if you know where to go, much of the Northeast is safer than, say, New Delhi, where us Fabric Social ladies used to live.
Three amazing women rocked up to Kolkata, ready and willing to be our guinea pigs. I welcomed Laura, a climate justice advocate, Jasmine, a freelance event planner and stylist, and Shannon, a program officer with a major humanitarian organisation. After a whirlwind visit to Kolkata, and some pachyderm-gazing at Kaziranga National Park, we headed out to our weaving village in far east Assam.
You will have heard of Assam because of the tea, an industry that is largely unwilling to modernise out of the indentured labour standards of the past, and which creates little wealth for Assamese people. Apart from tea, this part of the world also produces indigenous silks, including cruelty-free eri silk, the yarn that we use at The Fabric Social.
Our guests learnt how to create this fabric, which is no small feat. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes several villages working together to create a metre of silk. Our visitors witnessed the sericulture process - from growing the trees for the worms to eat, to watching the moths hatch at the end of their metamorphosis. We participated in the sorting, cutting and spinning of the yarn, and getting all the fiddly threads on to the fly shuttle loom for the weaver to start whack-whacking into fabric. The village women laughed at how poorly we worked the rudimentary wooden tools, and we realised we will probably never make it in the silk game.
The eri farm, the demilitarisation camp and the weaving unit are all located in a part of the state that was a rebel stronghold of the Assamese liberation movement. There is limited local industry, and the agricultural work is seasonal at best, subsistence at worst.
Silk is the life blood of these communities, a life blood that is threatened by the proliferation of cheap chemically derived fabrics and fast fashion’s steady annexation of the local Indian garment industry, as smallholder tailors and boutiques in the cities are gradually replaced by megalithic chain stores. The government coughs up a little funding to keeping these cottage industries afloat, but without renewed consumer confidence, they’re destined to fail.
On the final night in the village, sitting back in our tea bungalow sipping rum, we asked our guests what they would like the women in the village to know about their experience, or about the experience of women in Australia. Here is what they said:
Jasmine: “I would like them to know that the problems that exist today aren’t necessarily going to exist in the future. Things might have been uncertain with decades of turmoil and war, but there is hope. People are becoming more aware of where their things come from and what happens to the people who make the things that they wear and use and eat. We know that you’re out there and we appreciate you”.
Shannon: “I think there are similarities that everyone shares. I think women can innately be connected and that’s often overlooked or undervalued. Let’s look at the similarities and go from that – instead of one person being at an advantage point and another being at a disadvantage point. Where you are from doesn’t define where you start or where you are able to go.”
Laura: “Sometimes it’s really hard as a woman when you get shut down, or told you’re not good enough, or there are societal pressures that are put on you. Sometimes you need to have that solidarity and say – I am a woman in Australia, you’re a woman in Lakwa, I’m fighting against injustice and you’re fighting against injustice, and we can do it together. Sometimes it’s gonna be shit, and sometimes it’s going to be friggin hard, but there is a movement of women across the world fighting for you. Your collective power is so much more impactful than you’ll ever know”.
To be honest, we just wanted to make some extra cash for our village. What we got instead was something quite remarkable: the opportunity to see our beloved Northeast through a new set of eyes, with a group of open and fearless women.
Having worked on The Fabric Social for years, much of what makes the Northeast unique has become happenstance. The stark inequality of our world’s largest democracy, the wondrous burn of the Naga king chilli, the welcoming nature of village life, the charm of the shuffling, grumbling Indian railways.
We have bored many a dinner guest struggling to explain why what we do matters, and why it is so important to us. But it really boils down to this: the women in all the places we work are not a faceless supply chain, they are people. A crop of tweets or cheesy videos will never stack up to the impact of looking someone in the eye, chopping some veggies with them, and learning about their life, their work, their history. Acknowledging that when it comes down to it, we are not so different - us Melbourne girls and those incredibly resilient Lakwa women.
It’s these connections that stay with you, that motivate you to change your world, even if you can’t change the whole wide world. And that’s something that our humble tour achieved. We weren’t able to tell the women of Lakwa all the things we wanted, but we hope they know that we care. That we’re here, and we are thinking of them.
If you are interested in attending our next fundraising tour in late 2017, send an introductory email to email@example.com
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.