A widow fights Pakistan Taliban with embroidery
Mussarat Ahmedzeb, whose father-in-law once ruled Swat Valley, returned home at the height of gruesome Pakistan Taliban rule to open an embroidery program. Today, more than 500 women go there to earn money and escape the dangers of daily life.
Saidu Sharif, Pakistan
When the Pakistan Taliban’s campaign of terror arrived in the land formerly ruled by her late husband’s family, homemaker Mussarat Ahmedzeb decided she could no longer remain a bystander.Skip to next paragraph
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During visits to her native Swat Valley, the gray-haired mother of four had witnessed the astonishing rise of an Islamic insurgency under the charismatic leadership of Pakistan Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah, whose denunciations of American forces in Afghanistan and calls for Islamic law had galvanized thousands of young men to take control of the district and drive out local politicians, security personnel, and everyone else who dared oppose them.
Barbers were forced to put away their razors, music shops were burnt to the ground, and girls’ schools blown up. Those who fell foul of the extremists’ demands were called out on Mr. Fazlullah’s nightly FM radio broadcast and told to leave town or face execution at the infamous Zibakhana Chowk (“Butchers Roundabout”). Hundreds were beheaded, and women seen outside in the vicinity of unmarried men were subject to flogging.
It was against this backdrop that, in the spring of 2007, Mrs. Ahmedzeb left Islamabad to return home and set up three embroidery and handicrafts centers where destitute women could gather and work in peace.
“I had to create something ... a place where we can talk, we can chat so we can forget our worries. So we started with embroideries. Rather than hear who has been slaughtered and who had been killed, [they could] get away from the trauma,” explains the softly spoken woman with gray-green eyes and a tired expression. Mrs. Ahmedzeb’s own husband was murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1986.
A place to work, and relax
Using her personal savings, she bought electric sewing machines, looms and material, and put out word to the women of Swat’s towns and villages to come and visit her.
Now in its third year, with more than 500 women in employment, her three centers train women, free of charge, and export the colorful and distinctively Swati embroidery in the form of dresses, cushion covers, napkins, and more to buyers in Pakistan’s metropolitan cities of Lahore and Islamabad, the capital. An art exhibit in Islamabad by Argentinean Mariano Akerman this week showcased some of the best designs.
The centers – which Ahmedzeb continues to fund with her own money, including buying the raw materials – are filled with chatter and laughter. Swati women, unlike men, have few opportunities to congregate. Here they share tips and exchange gossip while sitting on mats. Several bring their young children too.
“We have so many needs to take care of so it’s better for us to work for ourselves and earn for ourselves,” says Sheema Bibi, a young single woman who began coming to the center, attached to Ms. Ahmedzeb’s ancestral home, last year. “Our brothers and fathers sometimes object, but everyone needs the money to get by.”