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Salma: independent spirit

Pakistan: residents spoke of their fight to meet basic needs

Salma, in her late 40s, has lived “like a lioness”, challenging social norms and earning the family’s living. When her husband did not provide for her, she left him, taking their two children, and set up as a tailor in Sanghar. He later joined her but Salma – now a mother of 10 – remains the family breadwinner.

Salma has set up several sewing centres, where she makes clothing and trains young women. By passing on the skills of knitting, embroidery and sewing she feels she has given her daughters a form of dowry that will last longer than any property, as well as the possibility of financial independence.

Although Salma says attitudes have changed since her youth, she clearly encountered much prejudice as a woman setting up her own business. She is saddened by the way so many poor women lack her courage; they live in “fear and tension” and dare not complain or demand their rights.

I have 10 children. [I married] almost 25 years ago… I didn’t even know my husband. I hail from Sindh while my husband is from Mianwali, Punjab…I had not even reached puberty…

There was everything in my father’s home – for example land. After my marriage my father sold the land and shifted to Punjab from Sindh…my life before marriage…was quite prosperous. I used to do stitching when I was 11 years old…I wasn’t dependent on my father or on anyone else in the family. I used to bear all my expenses through tailoring and would buy everything I needed with this…

After my wedding, I left for Mianwali. For a short period of time, my husband was normal with me. However, after sometime, my mother-in-law started complaining that her son loves his wife and was “ignoring” her. She created a lot of problems for me but neither did I complain to my husband nor my mother-in-law…

In the meantime, I had two children. One day, I asked him to give me money for my day-to-day expenses, but he refused and said that since he dined [every day] with his mother, he would not give me anything [for the family’s food]…

I wrote a letter to my father…and explained the whole situation. He came to my house and took me away. After that, I never went back… [my husband] didn’t come [to Sindh] for two years, but after that he had to[though] he is not doing anything now except eating.

Independence brings respect

He came here to create problems for me so that I would go back to Punjab with him… But I am running a sewing centre here. I want to educate and settle my children here and my wish is that they may never face those problems which I faced in my life.

Such sewing centres should be established here. It was the first lesson which I learnt from my own life – because had I not been well versed with this craft, I would not have been respected by my brothers nor my father…

I would earn 100 to 150 rupees daily, and would arrange good food and clothing both for myself and for my children…I was not dependent on my brothers or my father… Now I stitch five suits daily for 100 rupees each. It is enough for the daily expenses of my family. I have five sons and five daughters.

No question of divorce

During all this struggle, my husband thought that if he created problems for me then I would take a divorce and [that this] will give me a bad name. My mother also asked me to divorce so that they could re-marry me, but I told my father and mother that it would be unbearable for me.

If I…marry someone else then my second husband will also pose problems for me and my children, and would taunt me, [saying] that if I were a good wife my first husband would never have divorced me.

I told them categorically that I will remain in marriage with this person [and] I would earn my own livelihood and there will be no problem for anybody. Gradually my husband got settled here as he paid heed to people’s advice who suggested he live here [with me]…I purchased this land myself… He has been living here for the past 16 to17 years.

Poverty and prejudice

Sometimes I go to the houses where the families are facing a lot of difficulties due to poverty and after seeing their condition I cry a lot. These girls who come to learn stitching do not even have a needle and thread. They cook food only once a day.

I do not charge any fee from such girls and give them cloth, thread and a frame which is provided to me by the clients [who buy the garments] and after deducting my own expenses I give these girls the commission which I earn…

I am running four centres. The number of girls in each centre ranges from 18 to 24, to 50 to 60. In other words, after the completion of one training session a new batch comes in…It’s been eight years now [since I started working here]. Thousands of girls have passed out after being trained from my centres.

Now you can see their lives, they have two to three children and their husbands are also doing jobs after seeing the financial position of these girls. Their lives are better than my own because their husbands are also working with them… I faced problems because my husband didn’t do anything and I had very young children to bring up.

Double standards

The basic problem for our women is that if their husbands don’t work and yet ask for food, these men do not feel embarrassed! On the contrary, if the women come out of their homes [in order to earn], then their husbands point their fingers at them and accuse them of earning money through the wrong means. In my opinion, these men should be ashamed of themselves…

They [have accused me of wrong-doing too], whenever I go out for meetings…They threaten me saying that dacoits (bandits) live at the place where you are going for the meeting… But I have been going there for the past one year and I have never experienced this type of behaviour. I never saw any bad person.

[Once] I told my cousin, who was the member of the Zakat Committee (appointed to distribute the charitable donations given by all Muslims who can afford them) that I could not afford the rent and electricity bill [for the centre]… I requested him to go with me [to a government office] and get my centre registered [for charitable assistance].

At this he slapped me and said, “It would be unbearable for me if you go to the office…It would be unbearable for us if you talk to any officer there.” I told him that they were government officers and not angels of death…

The importance of courage

There should be a garment factory here where I could prepare ready-made garments, bridal wear and other types of clothes… thousands of girls will work with me… There are many poor people in our area and these steps would make their future [so that] they could stand on their own two feet.

These girls are the future mothers and it is my passion to give these girls a bright future… I am never afraid of any high official, whether he is District Commissioner (DC) or Nazim (elected local government official) or any other high ranking officer; instead I talk to him directly…

All these officials totally agree with my proposals and also respect me, but I want them to do something practical in this connection instead of paying lip service…

Don’t ask about my education! God has given me brains, courage and bravery. I only got primary education… The [women] ask me to lead and they would follow me because I am never afraid of any Nazim or DC…

Poverty generates fear

In my opinion, only 25 per cent of the women are being supported here while 75 per cent aren’t. These women are so despairing of their condition that they sometimes even think about committing suicide. They need jobs and education. It’s not like the past… I have come forward to work and 99 women have followed me…

The government should do something for the development of women of this area…at least open a bangles manufacturing unit. I feel that if it were in my control, I would never let the [women] fall victim to these difficulties… They spend their lives in fear and tension…

Poor people have their own weaknesses. If they are not provided with water or pipes or have any other problem, they are so afraid of complaining about these things. People are so afraid of discussing their problems with anybody, but I am not afraid of anybody.

Strength in numbers

[When women] ask me to do something for them, I always say that if I go alone then it would have no impact on the authorities. However, if four senior women go with me then I will arrange a refreshment party, bearing all expenses myself. I am sure the people like the Nazim of the area, Dr Sahab and the Superintendent of Police will definitely come…because whenever I invite them they accept… [then the women] can speak about their problems.

The people of this area should know that Nazim of the area, the DC and even President Pervez Musharraf are selected through the votes of poor people. Even my own existence in this area is due to the poor girls. If they did not work with me, then nobody would mention my name… I have no wealth, nor car nor a bungalow… people give me respect because of my work.

Changes in attitudes

Sanghar has changed a lot… 10 to 12 years ago, I was not even allowed to take my ailing son to the doctor. They would say that we don’t know how the doctor will look at you and [maybe he] will cast a bad eye on you. So you were not supposed to go to the doctor – no matter if the child dies. Now they don’t think in this way. Now women themselves visit the doctors and take their children. They also go shopping and buy clothes, bangles etc.

They did not educate their girls [then] because in their opinion if a girl got an education, she will marry from her own choice and would turn rebellious. [But girls] don’t behave like this normally. Whatever happens in their lives, it is all because of their own luck.

People need skills

I have a large family and the expense is quite alarming. Neither I have any savings nor can I borrow money from anybody. But at least we can manage good food and clothing for the family. Sometimes we cook chicken and sometimes only tomato chutney is available.

I do [help others]. Whenever a poor person marries his daughter, I stitch 10-12 shalwar kameez (loose trousers and tunic), blankets and bedding free of cost for her through my limited resources – because I also have 10 children and I need resources for their daily food and clothing…

I want them to have a good education, learn some craft and not be dependent on anybody. In my opinion, education is like a female and craft is like a male. If a boy or a girl has these two things then they can face any difficulty. If they have neither, then what they will do? They will be like a handicapped person, with no limbs and devoid of any movement…

The importance of interest-free loans

I do not give any importance to money. Even if I have 50 lakh rupees then first of all I will marry the girls and daughters of poor people and then my own daughters. After that I will expand my business so that the poor girls can work here, do tailoring and earn money for themselves. Or I will sell my products to a shop or store on a regular basis or I will work in areas like Karachi… where ready-made garments are not available.

[Change] can only be achieved through effort… if somebody supports me in my struggle, then [I and the girls] will gradually increase our profit margin from 0.25 rupees to 1 rupee… [If] the government and welfare organisations support us in these endeavours, then poverty will not remain a problem…

Poverty can only be alleviated if the government extends interest-free loans to poor people through some NGO and take these loans back on easy installments, only then people can establish their business. There should be a garment factory for women in Sanghar city, where thousands of women and girls are ready to work….

“I have learnt to fight life with courage”

I was never fond of anything like jewelry or clothes…We neither have radio nor television nor tape recorder in our house…My children are also not inclined towards these luxuries … Stitching was my only hobby since childhood. I am also well versed in knitting, Sindhi and Urdu embroidery and other crafts…

I have taught all these skills to [my daughters]… I am giving them training along with education. Teachers from well-off families come to me and joke that whatever expertise I have given to my girls, it will last forever. They say, “We Punjabi have a lust for jahaiz (dowry), which is exhausted in six months to 10 years. But the dowry you have given to your daughters will not end in their lifetime. You have turned their hands into ‘gold hands’…”

Whatever happened to me, [I hope] no girl may ever face these difficulties in her life. I advise every girl and every woman to stand up on her own feet, work hard and learn a craft. Now I do not depend on males… I have learnt to fight life with courage.

Keep your sorrows to yourself because…tears make a person very weak. People will make mockery of it and will spread the word. My neighbours know that whatever sorrows, miseries or storms I face, I keep them inside and always keep a smile on my face.

If I cried in front of people then they would start speculating about what has happened to this woman – probably she is in some difficulty – and they will avoid me in case I demand something from them. I have my own way of living and I live like a lioness. Even if there is nothing to eat at my home, I will keep it to myself and will never let it leak out.

This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections.

Project

Salma: independent spirit is produced as part of the Living with poverty: Pakistan oral testimony project.

Testimonies

Allah Bux: older generation

Basran: desperate times

Chhutta: migrant’s tale

Fatima: vulnerable lives

Hodat: diversifying business

Karim Bux: lacking support

Khamiso: looking back

Kishore: living prudently

Mircho: losing dignity

Nasreen: just surviving

Nazeer: high standards

Salma: independent spirit

Key themes

Introduction to the project

Loans and debt

Survival strategies

The cost of poverty

Environmental decline

Gender

Political representation

Powerlessness

Insecurity and conflict

Education

Food security and health