What is Afghan Hands?
First thing to know is that Afghan Hands is a nonprofit organization that teaches women to earn a living. It is not a charity as one might think. Every member of our Afghan Hands family earns their money by studying and/or working for the Afghan Hands project. The goal is to give a hand up, not a hand down to participants. We are primarily a literacy project for adult women that could not get an education due to war and the closure of girls school during the Taliban, and later due to post-war societal issues. We started in 2004 with five widows and quickly grew to 40. We also fine-tuned their embroidery skills in order for them to earn a living so they are not burdens to their family any longer and quickly become financial assets.
What are the biggest challenges for women today in Afghanistan?
Gender discrimination is a class issue in Afghanistan for the most part. Educated women can hold jobs as high as they wish. This reflects sexism as a class and financial construct in Afghanistan. Education is the only way out of that loop.
What makes the work that Afghan Hands does unique to other organizations that are there to help?
We are a grassroots organization that prides itself on being sustainable without the help of government, military or other types of sponsors. On one hand we pride ourselves on
working hard and earning money from the labor of our love, but on the other hand this hurts us because we lack money to build tangible infrastructure to properly market our
products or have a centralized office and program center.
How much money has been raised?
We had a strong first few years. Getting press always boosts the sales. The first piece of press we got in People magazine, we sold around $28,000.00 in two weeks. This ensured the money for the following year. In 2008/2009, when the economy was in a bad place, we had a few extremely tough years financially. I’m blessed that I was able to carry the project with my own income. As the economy improved we recovered and have sold $350,000.00 worth of product to date, so we are once again totally sustainable.
How does the organization use the money that it raises?
The money from our sales goes into a pool. We pay women to study half-a-day. However they must pass an exam every month in order to get the stipend. For their embroidery they make money according to their skills, how complex the work
is and also how long they have been with us. Bear in mind that out of 100 women we can only sell the work of maybe 20-25 of them. The rest stays in Kabul if it doesn’t pass our inspection criteria. We literally bring masterpieces to the states and they are exquisite!
How many women are involved in Afghan Hands project?
To date we have trained 200 women. 100 of them were transferred to a local program in Jalalabad because it became too dangerous for me to go there on my own and the cost of hiring security is astronomical.
What is the design process like?
Originally the project was more of an art project. I have collected Suzani textiles all my life with no opportunity to enjoy them or display them since I live in a small apartment
in NYC. When we started Afghan Hands, I packed them all in a suitcase and left them with our late manager Noor Jaan who helped our participants chose patterns and mix them as they wish to create their work of art.
The original collections had a very folk art kind of vibe to them. We had amazing reactions from our clients but it was too eccentric for fashion retailers. A buyer from Barney’s advised me to have them only a few colors per shawl. So we tried that, still leaving the design and coloring up to the artisan. The results were shockingly modern but still with a bold ethnic twist. These one-of-a-kind, yet cohesive, groupings of shawls were very successful and sold very well in our events as well as at modern art museums in both Houston and in New York City.
To keep things fresh, we joined forces with my client Claire Danes, an avid collector of Afghan Hands pieces and an embroidery enthusiast, along with her mother, artist Carla
Danes, who designed this whimsical collection that took three years to produce. It was the first time we actually made a collection. It came out a little lost in translation, but in a
good way. It took a long time to produce this collection mainly because our artisans were terrified of translating paintings into embroidery. But once they started to embroider and gained confidence — they soared.
So even when a design is repeated, every piece is somewhat individual and unique to every other?
Yes, every piece is handmade, so what happens with the pieces is that the tension of stitch and the placement of hands varies from artisan to artisan, much like individual
handwriting which is specific to each person. So even with the exact same design and color, the personality of each piece is very different. And that is just the physical aspect of it. Our shawls take an average of one to three months to produce. Our clients swear that there is energy of each artisan infused in the shawls they buy. One described wearing one as being like getting a hug from the woman that made it.
Words Michael DeVellis
Photos courtesy of Afghan Hands
Please visit and support www.afghanhands.org