Quilting has not only become a powerful way to advocate change around the world, it has provided a healing touch to marginalised sections of society as well
In 2014, four years before the Supreme Court of India decriminalised homosexuality by declaring Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code unconstitutional in respect of consensual homosexual sex between adults, a group of people belonging to the LGBTQI community in Chhotaudepur, decided to step out of the shadows. Instead of using street protests to voice their opinions, the Gujarat-based group adopted a unique way to advocate their rights. With many of them being henna artists, the group used their artistic skills to design and stitch a patchwork quilt. Christened the “Henna Pride” advocacy quilt, their labour of love has since been taken around the world for creating awareness about the lives, trials and tribulations of its makers and for raising the issue regarding liberty for all communities, irrespective of their gender and sexual orientation.
Exhibited at the 2019 summit of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD+25) in Nairobi, the quilt drew attention to the challenges members of the LGBTQI community face in advancing their sexual health and reproductive rights, despite gains like the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment.
Quilting has not only become a powerful way to advocate for change, it has provided a healing touch as well. Making the “Henna Pride” quilt was particularly liberating for the team from Vadodara-based Vikalp, a not-for-profit organisation that works with tribal and transwomen, as homosexuality was considered a crime in India at the time.
“The whole process of coming together to make the quilt was empowering,” says Maya Sharma, co-founder of Vikalp. “They didn’t have a voice and finding that voice was important. The quilts gave them a sense of purpose and represented the change that happened within, just by coming together. Just the process of sharing their experiences helped transform their lives. Each of them developed their potential,” explains Sharma.
Life for Payal, a 30-year-old transwoman took a turn for the better after the quilting project began. A male by birth, Payal prefers to be called that and not Mukesh, the name given by his family. He joined Vikalp to be with like-minded people and was chosen to contribute to the “Henna Pride” quilt because of his talent as a henna artist. Although Payal is one of the few educated, young tribals in his village, he had not been able to garner enough support to effectively combat stigma and discrimination. But joining hands with others like him boosted his confidence and self-belief. Today, he is the leader of a group and helps young people in tribal areas around his village live a dignified life. Now, there is greater freedom to dress and feel like a woman and to dance and celebrate without facing any backlash.
Payal’s colleague, Dakshaben, who joined Vikalp nearly 15 years ago, has become a journalist in a small newspaper. Dakshaben, a survivor of domestic violence, initially worked at women’s courts in Tilakwada to arbitrate cases of women like her, who were exploited and battered by their husbands. She brought a gender perspective to the quilting process, having been an outreach worker and possessing deep knowledge of her tribal community.
For Anika, a sex worker, quilting gave her the chance to overcome stigma and understand that she, too, had human rights. Today, she is much more aware of her constitutional rights and has begun to take her own decisions.
Much of this transformation was made possible because of the efforts of the Advocacy Project (AP), a global not-for-profit organisation that helps marginalised groups tell their stories and become agents of change. AP collaborated with Vikalp to use the quilt- making process to help the group.
“The Advocacy Project uses embroidery and quilting as a tool for therapy, rights awareness and advocacy. Funded by the United National Population Fund to train women, AP connects the artists with professional quilters to produce stunning advocacy quilts. Then they are exhibited to a larger global audience to push for social change,” says Karen Delaney, Deputy Director, AP.
Interestingly, the process of quilting has also brought change in the lives of professional quilters like Bobbi Fitzsimmons. Little did Fitzsimmons realise that her life would change when she engaged with the project some years ago. Fitzsimmons, who was present at the Nairobi Summit where AP presented 18 quilts from 14 countries, narrated how the project helped her gain confidence to move on in life.
While working in Nepal to create two quilts with women who lost family members during the civil war in the country, Fitzsimmons was able to overcome the trauma of her own loss. “The quilts are both memorials to those who disappeared and dramatic reminders to the Government that each block represents people whose lives were torn apart by their loss,” she says.
Fitzsimmons was also involved in helping to make the Kenya Cow quilt presented by Children Peace Initiative Kenya (CPIK). This quilt showcased how cows and children played a role in bringing peace between warring tribes in north-west parts of the country.
Salaiton Lenguris and Joyce Leiririo, mothers of some of the quilters from Kenya present at the summit, pointed out how freedom from conflict had given them a chance to become economically independent. Lenguris stated that the quilts portrayed how drought forced pastoralists to take their cattle into the grazing grounds of other tribes, triggering a conflict. It also showed how children became the torchbearers of peace.
The Children Peace Building Programme came about after the CPIK decided to use them as the primary actors in the peacemaking process. “The idea is that children are not just victims of conflict; rather, they are the bridges of peace in their families and communities that can combat and resolve inter-ethnic conflicts,” contends Samson, programme officer, CPIK.
Under this programme the CPIK brought children of the warring Samburu and Pokot tribes together and engaged them in a series of activities that enabled them to become friends. Once the children became friends, their families ended hostilities. Various activities over the past three years, including a five-day peace camp for the children, helped them become agents for reconciliation between their tribes. This peace was sealed by gifting two families one heifer. Once the heifer gave birth the calves were distributed among them, thus ending the perennial conflict over livestock.
Lenguris and Leiririo were among the first from the Samburu tribe to become friends with mothers and children of the Pokot tribe. No fighting has been reported between the two tribes for some years now.
Now that there is peace, the mothers have been able to make use of their quilting training to make more quilts and the sale of their products has given them economic freedom as well.
“Besides getting the opportunity to come together, we gained skills that can be used to generate income for the rest of our lives. So, for the first time, we have the resources to look after the health of our children and families. This is why these quilts have become so important for us,” says a contented Lenguris.
(Writer: Swapna Majumdar ; Courtesy: The Pioneer)