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.

Issam Ahmed
Women are shown, in this photo, working at the Swat war widows institute. They make embroidery and dresses to sell within Swat and around the country.

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.

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.”

When the Taliban were in charge, she continues, "we had to be discreet lest we were caught working, but we tried to come by whenever could."

Another young woman, Arifa, says she lost her husband, the sole breadwinner for the family, to a roadside bomb that was meant for the Army, who cleared the Taliban out of Swat in a major push last spring. Others say they've lost husbands who had joined the Taliban, though they asked for their names to be withheld.

The women typically earn $50 to $150 a month, depending how much they produce. Some, like teenager Sidra Bakthiad, is using her pay to save up for her college education.

From drawing room to war zone

Ahmedzeb, who owns homes both in Saidu Sharif and Islamabad, says she decided to return to Swat in 2007 partly because her children had finished their schooling, and partly to fulfill her obligations to her people.

“I’m not a city person at heart,” she says. “I couldn’t partake in drawing room discussions in Islamabad and do nothing with myself.”

Ahmedzeb’s father-in-law, Mian Gul Abdul Haq Jahanzeb, was the well-respected wali (princely ruler) of Swat, until the territory was ceded to Pakistan in 1969. He was known for having built hundreds of schools and many hospitals.

Ahmedzeb never had any formal training, having left school at age 15 to be married. But she became a keen gardener, cook, and embroidery enthusiast, and realized that last skill would be the most economically viable if passed on to poor women.

Residents here speak highly of acts of generosity, such as opening her ancestral home to fleeing refugees during a 2009 Army operation in Swat and financially supporting some 18 children of refugees.

"The women of the family are upholding their family name and are good social activists," says Ziauddin Yusufzai, head of the private schools association of Swat, adding Ahmedzeb has a reputation of being a “very fine woman.”

Even some Taliban members seemed to show her respect, or at least respect her family name. Early last year, militants began to stop the vans that Ahmedzeb hired to pick up women from distant towns and villages. The Taliban demanded to know why the women were traveling without their husbands.

Ahmedzeb sent a male servant to go and speak with the militants, who then called her on her cell phone. “I told them off, and they apologized. They said, ‘We’re sorry Mussarat Bibi, it won’t happen again,’ ” she laughs, recounting the story. “We didn’t have any problems after that.”

Those who worked with her during the Swat refugee crisis commend her dedication, too. Retired Justice Nasira Iqbal, one of Pakistan’s first female High Court judges, participated in a citizens’ action group that helped channel funds to Swat from Lahore.

“She was credible, she was reliable, she ensured the funds got to where they were intended. She went into dangerous areas like Kabal [a former militant stronghold] where we could not go," Ms. Iqbal says. “She was very brave. Everyone from the elite class had already left the area, but she stayed behind."

With help of friends, Ahmedzeb hopes to expand the sewing business and start providing fixed salaries.

For now though, the women at her centers are grateful for the opportunities they are getting. “We owe Mussarat Bibi a lot for the hope she’s given us,” says Sheema Bibi.

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