Author: Somaiyah Hafeez
In the towns and rural areas of Balochistan women have been keeping alive centuries-old traditions of Balochi embroidery. With a 24 percent female literacy rate, one of the lowest in the world, career options for Baloch women from rural areas are limited mostly to embroidery work. A transition to online businesses for selling these vibrant Balochi dresses has drastically improved lives of these embroiderers, locally known as dochgirs, providing further opportunities, including being able to collaborate and supervise.
Hurmat Khatoon, 42, is one of the hundreds and thousands of dochgirs profiting from online sale of Balochi dresses. Khatoon had started by going door-to-door in her village to sell the clothes. This meant that her customers were limited to women in her village, located in Khuzdar district of Balochistan. When Khatoon heard of the online business, she first asked her children to make a page for her where she could post her dresses. Later, she started sending her dresses to Hello Doch, an online platform for buying and selling Balochi dresses.
“My husband is a gardener. His income isn’t enough to feed everyone. Hence, I decided to utilise my skills to contribute to the household expenses. Transitioning to online business has resulted in an increased sale of my dresses, hence, an increased income. Previously, I would go door-to-door and had a limited market but now customers from different countries reach out to me,” says Khatoon.
Some of Khatoon’s designs are particularly in demand in the Middle East. Khatoon now earns Rs 50,000 a month, along with her two daughters who work with her.
For many other women from low-income families, the traditional craft – passed through generations – is not just a way of life and a way out of poverty but also a source of independence.
The vibrant Baloch embroidery, created with needle and colorful threads, adorns the front, sleeves and pockets of dresses and the trouser cuffs.
Traditionally dochgirs work independently and on a freelance basis, but there has been a recent boom in online businesses, resulting in an increased income for the dochgirs as their work now has a far wider clientele.
These dochgirs, many from rural areas, who previously didn’t have access to urban buyers, are now getting orders from women living in cities all over Pakistan as well as elsewhere in the world. These clothes are sold in Quetta, Karachi and wherever the Baloch diaspora lives, including the UK, the US, and the Middle East.
Khatoon is employed by Sakina Sattar who is in her 60s and runs a boutique in Khuzdar, Balochistan. Much of her business comes through online orders, via the Instagram handle Hello Doch. She has received orders from all over Pakistan and abroad.
Sattar receives an average of 15 to 20 orders a month. This can increase to as many as 50 during Eid festivals or when there’s a wedding. According to Baloch custom, a bride receives a number of dresses for her wedding.
To meet the demand, Sattar employs about 2,000 women from across Balochistan who work from their homes. She says it takes at least three women to make a Balochi dress.
Sattar says, “There is a huge demand, particularly in countries where Baloch women do not have direct access to dochgirs. There are so many women who need this work to fulfill their basic needs. The online businesses have transformed the lives of many women since more work is available to meet this demand.”
Many women have struck a partnership with the emerging online businesses that commission a number of dresses to them that they then share with other women.
“Since dochgirs belong to rural areas where they don’t have access to the internet, they can’t set up their businesses online. So, they collaborate with the already established set-ups like ours,” says Sattar.
Samina Tanzeel, 30, from Khuzdar is one such woman. She is not only an embroiderer but also a designer and runs her personal business account besides working with Sattar. Tanzeel not only does embroidery work but also supervises work and distributes it among other women who live in towns and villages in the vicinity of Khuzdar.
“Online business has benefitted dochgirs with its outreach. Now there is much more work available as the demand for dresses has increased due to increased outreach,” says Tanzeel.
Tanzeel, who has been working for 15 years, feels immensely proud that she is independent and can not only lend a helping hand to her husband, a clerk, in running the household but can also support herself and her two children on her own.
Equipped with not just embroidery skills but also an online platform to sell it, Tanzeel says that “lives of all the women [in this business] have improved significantly—many women could previously not imagine educating their children but now they are sending their children to private schools using the proceeds from their embroidery work.”
Saira Ali, 18, had to quit her education after grade seven due to poverty. She decided to work instead so she could contribute to the household income after her father retired.
“I have been selling my embroidery work online. I have a platform where my work sells easily. I receive more work because of the online platform. Now I am able to pay for food and other household expenses,” says Ali.
Shahida, 25, previously worked independently as a dochgir. This meant that her embroidery didn’t have a wide reach. Shahida says she does this work to save for her marriage and build a house for herself.
When Shahida started working under Sattar, she started selling 15-20 dresses a year compared to 5-10 dresses that she had sold in her village.
“Having belonged to a village, I didn’t know about social media and how it can transform lives of local artisans if they post their work online,” says Shahida. “Social media has, indeed, brought a revolution to the lives of dochgirs. There are times we have to decline orders.”
Somaiyah Hafeez is a freelance writer. She tweets @sommul_baloch
Published on The News on Sunday