Virginia Woolf in Sangrur: A Stitching Center of One’s Own for Impoverished Farm Women

Expounding on “women and fiction” (and indeed the several fictions about women), Virginia Woolf’s brilliant long essay, A Room of One’s 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 time and space—for the body, heart and head. Said Woolf, while noting the many obstacles in women’s path to succeed as thinkers and writers and change-makers,

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.

Recently, the village of Chural Kalan in the Sangrur District of the state of Punjab, India, 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 (a congregation space for Sikhs), 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. Making your acquaintance, the board informs: “Stitching Center, Bridge Builders (India), Kabliji Memorial Trust, New Delhi.”

Inside, there are more sandals neatly along the wall—it was raining when the owners of these first rushed in this morning, the women explain with a smile. “Open between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., the Center time is just after all the household chores are done,” the stitching instructor says. “Or temporarily dodged,” interrupts one of the students, and the room resounds 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. The plight of farmers in India was cruelly again a subject of political volleyball during this past Indian election season: Facing the threat of heightened farmers’ union protests, the Punjab government declared yet another suicide survey in March 2014. Yes, the poverty in the farming community in parts of Punjab too often has led to suicide. The extent of the problem has been known to be pervasive since the 1990s, with the Punjab government first  announcing allocations for compensation to families of suicide victims in 2001 (though it dithered on actual payments for the next decade). Currently, another expert commission is considering compensation plans and debt conciliation boards, while the Punjabi farming community holds on tenuously to some hope that some of these recommendations will in fact be implemented.

Recognizing 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 nothing that even when compensatory relief is provided it does not empower women—the Delhi-based NGO Building Bridges India set up the stitching centers in partnership with Punjab’s capital Chandigarh-based NGO Baba Nanak Education Society.

The partnership focuses on women, not only because they are overwhelming 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, 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.

Although, at first blush, relegating women to needlework seems like precisely the kind of domestication that Woolf raged against even in the 1920s, where you sit is where you stand on this issue. Sitting in southern Punjab, in a context where women are seldom allowed far from their homes, a local stitching center provides a space where women can fairly easily gather. 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 Rasil Basu, chair of Building Bridges and a former UN Women’s Division officer.

Virginia Woolf, too, wanted to help women find a way out of stifling circumstances, but predicted criticism for suggesting that money could literally buy the freedom women need to think:

[Y]ou may object that in all this I have made too much of the importance of material things. Even allowing for a generous margin of symbolism, that 500 [pounds] a year stands for power to contemplate, that a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself, still you may say that the mind should rise above such things; that great poets have often been poor men…

But the mind can barely rise above such things when the stomach is literally empty. Bluntly put by Woolf,

And women have always been poor, not for 200 years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women, have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.

In the rooms that serve as Bridge Builder India’s stitching center, “Sangrur Bells” are the product of the season. A simple stretch of phulkari work, tied off with two small bells at the bottom, make for an attractive keychain. Phulkari, the Punjabi art inextricability symbolizing marriage and trousseaus (read: dowries), 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 across North India, “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 is not lost on the NGO, which also measures its success in non-economic terms. It provides women a safe space for advice, discussion and support in an environment where local support systems have been eroded.

But Building Bridges India and the 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 be sewing machines and small NGO efforts.

Nonetheless, these NGO efforts are stitching together a new kind of resistance—one that shows what women have always known but seldom been recognized 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, buying the parts needed to make them, or adopting a family affected by farmer-suicide, could be our own contribution to protect women’s safety, sanity and spaces.

Readers can make a tax-exempt donation here. Every donor receives a phulkari key chain.

Crossposted from a similar version in The Sunday Tribune (India).

Photo of woman wearing clothing with phulkari stitching from Flickr user jasleen_kaur under license from Creative Commons 2.0



Mallika Kaur is a writer, lawyer and organizer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the United States and South Asia and teaches at UC Berkeley School of Law. She is the author of “Faith, Gender, and Activism in the Punjab Conflict: The Wheat Fields Still Whisper,” Palgrave MacMillan (2019). She is also the co-founder and executive director of the Sikh Family Center, the only Sikh American organization focused on gender justice. Tweet her @mallikakaur.