Sixty-five-year-old Haer Bibi’s deft fingers run the needle in and out of the pieces of the traditional Balochi dress placed on her knees. A resident in the village of Kuddan in Kech district in Balochistan, Bibi is a professional embroiderer, locally known as a dochgir.
Despite her age, she continues to work to make ends meet and manages to earn about 10,000 rupees per month. “I have no other option but to embroider, my sons are unemployed and my husband’s income as a shopkeeper is not enough to put food on the table,” says Bibi who started embroidering dresses when she was 16. Two of her daughters also embroider and contribute to the household expenses.
Haer Bibi is one of the tens of thousands of Baloch women who work as dochgirs in different regions of Balochistan such as Chaghai, Jhal Magsi, Makran, Dera Bugti, Jhal, Sibi, Kohlu, Mastung and Kalat. After finishing their domestic chores by the evening, they settle down with their fabric and threads on charpoys to do their embroidery, sometimes for six hours at a stretch, especially if they haven’t done a morning slot before the daily chores begin. Hours of sitting upright and focusing on embroidery is hard, and backaches and weak eyesight are not uncommon among the dochgir.
The traditional Balochi frock-like dress worn by Baloch women is known as pashk. Embroidery is done on the sleeves and the long pockets that run from the waist to the hem. The cuffs of the shalwar worn with the pashk are also embroidered. The embroidery matches or contrasts with the colour of the pashk and sometimes mirrors are also used with colourful threads. The pashk is usually passed on from mothers to daughters, as the intricate hand embroidery does not wear away and, if the fabric gets damaged, the embroidery can be cut out and sewn on to a new fabric.
“Young Baloch girls grow up learning embroidery skills that are passed from one generation to the other,” says Wahid Buzdar, a Baloch historian. “Balochi embroidery is entirely done by hand and consists of intricate designs with fine detail. The motifs used in Balochi embroidery are similar to those found engraved on pottery excavated from the Mehrgarh civilisation, on the Kachhi Plain of Balochistan near the Bolan Pass, dating back 11,000 years.”
The prices of Balochi embroidered dresses vary according to the designs and can range from 15,000 rupees for everyday wear, to 70,000 rupees for special occasion wear. Apart from receiving orders from other village women, the artisans of Kuddan also get orders from Turbat, Quetta and the Middle East, through friends and relatives.
Clients provide the dochgir threads and fabric bought from Karachi, Turbat, Gwadar or Quetta. Once the embroidery is done, the dress is stitched by the client herself or given to a tailor.
A dochgir’s income depends on the number of dresses she embroiders per month or per year. On an average, many dochgir are able to complete a full dress — worth 30,000 rupees — in a month. When just the sleeves, or pockets are to be embroidered, a dochgir will try to get more orders to make up a substantial income.
Rashida, 42, who learnt to embroider from her mother, makes 15,000 rupees per month through her embroidery. “Since my husband’s income wasn’t enough to feed us and pay for our children’s education, I started embroidering to support his income.” Rashida wants her youngest school-going daughter, Halima, to complete her education, and doesn’t plan to marry her off early, as she did her eldest.
“I am not educated, but I know that, without education, one can’t compete in today’s world,” she says. “Halima is learning to embroider but she is only allowed to do her own dresses, because I want her to focus on her studies.”
Thirty-five-year-old Ayesha’s husband is a daily wager, earning not more than 16,000 rupees per month. “When he is out of work, my income runs the house,” she says. Similarly, Fahmida, 28, contributed to her father’s income for household expenses as well as her younger brothers’ education, before she got married.
“Sometimes, I would borrow money from other women for medical emergencies and, in exchange I would embroider a dress for them,” she recalls, as she plays with her toddler. “I still work as a dochgir, because to be able to independently afford something that I want gives me great satisfaction,” she adds.
Balochi embroidery is admired globally. Flo Morrisey, a British singer and writer, and several Bollywood actresses such as Shabana Azmi and Kangana Ranaut have been photographed dressed in Balochi attire. In 2020, Halima Hossinzehi, a young Canadian Baloch woman’s photographs playing basketball with her sister Sarah in a pashk also went viral, leading them to be interviewed by Vogue.
“We need more promotion for this art and the artisans,” says Hani Baluch, a Bahrain-based artist. “I have seen Balochi embroidery designs on H&M and Zara dresses but no credit was given to the source of these designs, Baloch culture or the dochgirs. We could call this profiting off of a marginalised community but, in reality, we haven’t really promoted our culture enough.”
“With little or no education, these Baloch women artisans are supporting their families through hardship and keeping alive the centuries-old tradition of Balochi embroidery,” concludes Buzdar. “They deserve recognition and support from the government and NGOs. Promotion and marketing of their skills, and technical support, will not only empower more women, it will also take Baloch culture to another level.”
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 7th, 2021
Note: This piece has been published by the author’s permission.