A room full of possibilities
Mallika Kaur

An NGO in Sangrur has provided women space and a platform which will enhance their independence and security

In Chural Kalan village, Sangrur, some 20 women are making products of Phulkari called "Sangrur Bells" that are being sold in many stores. Photo: Sarah Sandring

A woman doing Phulkari embroidery.
Products made by women.
Products made by women.

Women share a quiet moment while working at the centre
. Photos courtesy: Building Bridges India

Expounding on "women and fiction", Virginia Woolf's brilliant collection of short essays, A Room of Her Own, was first published in 1929. Woolf underscored the dependence of literary genius on freedom of thought; of freedom of thought on the free availability of space; and of space on financial freedom that buys one time and indeed this space-for the body, heart, and head.

"In the first place, to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question," said Woolf while noting the many obstacles in women's path to succeed as thinkers and writers and change-makers.

Recently, Chural Kalan village, Sangrur district, Punjab, saw 20 women beginning to feel the freedom of a room of their own.

Albeit shared, and, in fact, not even 'theirs,' this is a room of possibilities.

The promised room is in the courtyard of the village gurudwara, marked by a nondescript board on top of the modest doorway. The lettering is small and as one walks up to read it, one can't help notice that the 10 pairs of sandals outside are quite worn. The board reads: "Stitching Centre, Building Bridges (India), Kabliji Memorial Trust, New Delhi."

Inside, there are more sandals neatly along the wall. "Timed between 11AM and 1PM, the centre time is just after all the household chores are done…" "Or temporarily dodged [taal ke]" interrupts another and the room cackles with soft laughter, before the women return to their quiet needlework.

Enjoying a quiet space to herself is often an impossibility for any woman. Even more so when her home is ravaged with poverty. Recognising that relief for families of farmers who commit suicide is deathly slow to come — even as cases of multiple family members committing suicide due to mounting debt continue to come to light — and that even when compensatory relief is provided, it does not have an empowering impact on women, the NGO Building Bridges India set up the stitching centres in partnership with Chandigarh-based NGO Baba Nanak Education Society.

The partnership focuses on women not only because they are overwhelmingly the forced breadwinners in the suicide-afflicted villages, but also because prejudices against women and girls have deepened with economic blight. Villagers do not want to have daughters, especially in tough economic times. This makes girls, and those who birth girls, particularly vulnerable. Gender stereotypes, only masked better by the middle-class, take on a brazen face in economically distressed families. When the entire agrarian society is overwhelmed by economic frustration, women's bodies are increasingly accepted as sites of release. Respecting these bodies for their autonomy and enhancing their independence and security, is at the core of the NGOs' partnership.

Though, at first blush, relegating women to needlework seems like precisely the kind of domesticisation that Woolf raged against even in the 1920s. However, where you sit is where you stand on this issue. Sitting in southern Punjab, in a context where they are seldom allowed far from their homes, women can frequent local stitching centre relatively easier than any other kind of meeting space. And a space to meet, work, and talk together is paramount.

"Helping women find a way out, while enhancing their dignity and value in the eyes of the society around them, requires working on site, in their local contexts, building trust, building bridges," says tenacious Rasil Basu, chair of Building Bridges and former UN Women's Division Officer.

In the rooms that serve as Bridge Builder India's stitching centre, "Sangrur Bells" are the product of the season. A simple stretch of phulkari work, tied off with two small ghungroos at the bottom, make for an attractive keychain. Phulkari, the Punjabi art itself inextricability symbolising marriage, trousseaus (read: dowry), is taking on a new meaning, tied to independence. Bright silken stitches aptly reflect resilience, and new hope; a revival of Punjabi tradition often lost in these villages where bountiful meals, rosy pink cheeks, and hearty people sowing hearty crops feel like things of another era. Available now at the eclectic 1469 stores, "Sangrur Bells" are poised to taunt the naysayers. Meanwhile, Building Bridges India seeks other creative avenues, stores and outlets, to market this product.

The limitations and challenges of making local handicraft profitable are not lost on the NGO, which, however, also measures its success in non-economic terms: its process inclusively provides women a safe space for advice, discussion — support in an environment where local support systems have been eroded.

Building Bridges India, which runs these centres, or Baba Nanak Education Society, which surveys and adopts families of farmers who have committed suicides in over 100 villages in the Sangrur area alone, are no substitute for government regulation and policy changes. Compensation, crop insurance, interest rate caps, and ultimately loan forgiveness and clean alternatives to unprofitable agriculture, cannot be replaced by sewing machines and small NGO efforts.

But these NGO efforts are stitching together a new kind of resistance. One that shows what women have always known but seldom been recognised for: their resilience, their self-sufficiency, their capacity. For those who see such interventions as band-aid solutions, the NGOs concerned could not agree more. They welcome, and await, larger help and change. In the meantime, buying Sangrur Bells, or better yet, buying some of the inputs to make these, or adopting a family affected by farmer-suicide, could be our own contribution to protect women's safety, sanity, and spaces.