In recognition of International Women’s Day, a few words about the women of Mehera Shaw
-from the desk of Mark Keller
The first woman to come to work at Mehera Shaw was, of course, our co-founder, chief designer, and director—Shari Keller. At the time Shari was entering a male bastion, of sorts, because in India the trade of stitching and tailoring is traditionally the province of men. Naturally, Shari came with some assets that merited respect and eased her entry somewhat—education, knowledge of western tastes and design, able to speak Hindi.
The main obstacle she faced, not only as a woman, but as an employer, was to create an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. It was important, if the business were to succeed, that the staff realize they could share their thoughts and ideas without worrying whether they lined up with what the “boss” already thought and wanted to hear. They also had to understand that Shari did not require any kind of extraordinary handling, as a female, and especially as western female. Ordinary good manners and consideration were sufficient.
And, happily, trust and mutual respect among all the staff were established over time, though not without some bumps and hesitations, and by now quite a few visitors have noted that Mehera Shaw, with its woman director, has an unusually harmonious and civil working environment.
And it was partly because word of this got around, that our second woman came to work for us, arriving with her husband on the back of a motor scooter one day, saying she had heard Mehera Shaw was a good place to work, and that she wanted a job. Shari had been hoping to hire women for some time, but the men had reservations. What would she do? She didn’t know how to operate a sewing machine. How would the rest of the staff react to her presence? Would their manners be up to the mark? What if they said or did something wrong?
The men’s reservations might sound a bit silly, even extreme, but the fact is that the average Indian man doesn’t know many women outside of his extended family. His extended family may be huge, of course, so in net terms he knows many women. But almost only from his family. Outside of his work and family environment, he will rarely, if ever, converse with a woman; and the same is true in reverse—the women know lots of men, but only within their family circles.
I wasn’t there to witness what then transpired, but I surmise that Shari exerted come careful, subtle pressure, and the woman was hired to do some basic work that required no special skills.
And everything was fine. The roof didn’t fall in. The men realized that this “strange female” wasn't a separate species from their female relatives, and that normal good manners and respectfulness were all she required to feel at home there.
After that other women began to show up, as the word went around, somehow, that Mehera Shaw was not only a “good place to work”, but a “good place for women.”
I mentioned earlier that stitching and tailoring, in the Jaipur region of India, are practiced almost exclusively by men. But I didn’t say that about sewing; all the women sew, some of them elaborately, beautifully. They crochet. They knit. They know kantha stitching, traditional to this region and highly valued. And these skills are now being employed in our upcycling projects. The hand stitching also adds value to garments. These are skills the men don’t have.
A couple of the Mehera Shaw women, Manju Ji and Meena Ji, have become trainers for the other women, guiding them though the making of new products, many of which, again, are based on their traditional skills, and maybe even patterned after things in their own homes. They also oversee quality quality control, and have been given charge over such matters as fabric selection in the creation of up cycled products.
Some of the women have expressed a desire learn machine stitching as well, and they have begun training, under the guidance of our Pattern Master/Production Director.
But the important point about this is that the way is open for any woman at Mehera Shaw, or man, to acquire whatever skills they seek, or advance to any responsible position they are qualified for, without regard to gender, caste, or religion.
Another lucky aspect to having women on our staff has their interaction with our foreign interns, all of whom, up to now, have been young women. Coming from Europe, UK, Australia, the U.S., fresh from their studies and formal training, they enter a practical realm of hands-on experience. Their appreciation for our women’s skills has been very encouraging. And our women have been fairly persistent about drawing them into their tea circle. So friendships, sharing, and all the stuff that’s often called “cross-cultural exchange” happens surprisingly quickly and very naturally.
This has been very gratifying for all of us.
About a year ago, Shari went out to a village to attend the wedding celebration of a relative of one of our employees. It was a a high energy night of dancing (women with women/men with men), eating, gabbing, laughing. And she had a ball In the midst of this, a woman approached Shari, introducing her young daughter. “She is in the eleventh grade,” she explained. “And she is staying in school.”
Somehow, she knew that Shari would care. Possibly, the word had gone around in that village that Mehera Shaw was a “good place for women.”
Well, we hope so. These are the kinds of the things that make us feel good about what we do.