From Pakistan to Darrai Noor
Rubia began in 2000 in Lahore, Pakistan when Ghulam Sakhi Rustamkhan asked Rachel Lehr, an artist and ethno-linguist living in New Hampshire, to help his impoverished family who had fled Afghanistan to escape the Taliban. We honor the memory of Sakhi who passed away on July 14, 2011. Rachel Lehr describes Sakhi’s role in the founding of Rubia:
When Ghulam Sakhi Rustamkhan — Sakhi — contacted me in 2000, he was a refugee in Lahore, Pakistan, desperately seeking a way to improve the lives of his immediate and extended family. Sakhi and I had been students together in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, in the early 1980s but had lost contact in the intervening years. When he approached me all these years later, his family was living in appalling conditions in Lahore’s slums, along with other Afghan refugees from their home region.
Rachel responded with a plan for an indigenous enterprise where women and teenage girls who were bound by the tradition of purdah (social segregation) could work at home practicing the age-old Afghan craft of embroidery. The enterprise served the community by harnessing fine embroidery skills and selling their well designed products to a Western audience. Rubia’s model of sustainability was founded on competitive market awareness and economic returns. All the work the women produced was sold in the United States and the proceeds returned to pay for more materials and more embroidery.
The women requested a school for their children whose education had been neglected in Pakistan: parents were afraid to send them to Pakistani schools where they could be noticed and deported. While trying to remain invisible, Rubia set up an elementary school with separate rooms for girls and boys. Fathers in the community who could read and write were hired as teachers. The literacy component in Rubia’s original conception was intended to link education with economic opportunity. Embroidery would be the economic incentive, the hook, to bring the women along educationally. While we originally planned that all the embroiderers would attend literacy classes, this did not happen. Some of their families would not allow women to participate at first; but eventually, after they gained trust in Rubia, most of them sent their wives and daughters to the classes.
Rubia continued when the refugees returned to Nangarhar province after the fall of the Taliban. From the high mountain valley of Darrai Noor to cosmopolitan Kabul, Rubia has trained and employed hundreds of women in fine embroidery skills
Rubia prides itself on working within the family context, respectful of Afghan culture and values. In rural Darrai Noor local tradition dictates that women’s faces not be seen in public. Proudly, Rubia women show off their embroideries, wearing the traditional chadri or burqa.
For most of these women working for Rubia has been the first opportunity to earn an income. They are hardworking and enthusiastic about their embroidery, knowing that they are preserving a cultural tradition passed from the hands of mothers to daughters. The income they earn helps support their families; it goes towards purchasing food, medicines, clothing, and shelter.
Women do their work at home, as time permits, between domestic chores, and are paid by the piece when their work is completed. Doing embroidery when they choose fits into the rhythm of their daily lives.
Rubia provides high quality materials for embroidery. Workshops provide training in all the skills needed to create fine functional and ornamental textiles that reflect the Afghan aesthetic.
For many Afghan women this stitched signature represents a new skill, learning to read and write. Their signed work is marketed in Afghanistan and in the US through direct sales at shows and fairs and through retail shops and wholesale vendors.