Embroidering within Boundaries

Afghan women creating a future
Embroidering within in Boundaries: Afghan Women Creating a Future by Rangina Hamidi and Mary Littrell and photography by Paula Lerner is a powerful book that introduces readers to Hamid’s native Kandahar, Afghanistan, where she started Kandahar Treasure, an enterprise centering on the stunning traditional embroidery that would help women earn a living and find a degree of independence in a patriarchal society.
 
Early on in the book, Hamid and Littrell present a grim picture of life for women in Afghanistan. Statistics compiled by the United Nations reported in 2015 that women over the age of 25 had attended an average of 1.2 years of school compared to 5.1 years for men. Women earned—on average—$506 while men made $3,227. Six out of ten girls, not yet 16 years old are already married and on average have six live births. The risk of death is high for children under the age of five and for their teenaged mothers, who are pressured to continue having babies until a male child (or more ) is born. Women’s lives center on taking care of children, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, preparing meals. Because a woman’s status is so low in the household, she often is at the receiving end of emotional and physical abuse.
 
The one area of their lives that men don’t control is khamak embroidery. Hamid and Littrell shine in telling the revival of khamak embroidery in the 21st century via the enterprise Kandahar Treasure and how it has created stability in the lives of many women, helping them generate income by allowing them to work at home. In writing the book, the authors asked a series of questions from to whom is khamak important? Is khamak making a difference to the women? How has the tradition evolved? Why form an enterprise centered on embroidery? Each of these questions are answered in the subsequent chapters along with poignant stories of women who fend for themselves by earning an income through their embroidery work. 
 
The late Paula Lerner’s photography captures the beauty of the detailed and intricate work (some kahmak embroidery can have as any as 70 stitches per inch ) in a number of items including household textiles such as tablecloths, wall hangings, bedspreads, and pillow cases, but also burkas and men’s tunics. 
 
Embroidery within Boundaries is also the story of Rangina Hamidi and her family who fled Afghanistan to Pakistan and then to Virginia. She returned to her homeland in 2003 with the mission to help rebuild Afghanistan. 
 
Embroidering within Boundaries is a gorgeous visual, but also touching testimony of how traditional textile craft and the women behind the needle and thread can forge a new path for themselves in a region so wrought with conflict and hardship. 
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