Embroidering within Boundaries: Afghan Women Creating a Future

Embroidering within Boundaries: Afghan Women Creating a Future

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Winner, Silver Medal in the Multicultural Category, 2018 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards

Fifteen years ago, Rangina Hamidi decided to dedicate her life to helping rebuild her native Kandahar, Afghanistan. The Taliban had been driven out by American forces following 9/11, but Kandahar was a shambles. Tens of thousands of women, widowed by years of conflict, struggled to support themselves and their families. Rangina started an entrepreneurial enterprise, using the exquisite traditional embroidery of Kandahar, to help women work within the cultural boundaries of Pashtunwali to earn their living and to find a degree of self-determination. Thus Kandahar Treasure was born. This book traces the converging paths of traditional khamak embroidery and the 300 brave women who have found in it a way to build their lives. The late, award-winning photojournalist Paula Lerner was dedicated to telling the stories of women in Afghanistan. Her remarkable images throughout the book show Afghan women’s profound struggle, strength, and beauty.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780998452302
Publisher: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.
Publication date: 10/01/2017
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 172
Product dimensions: 10.00(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Rangina Hamidi is the founder and president of Kandahar Treasure. She has served as the manager of the women’s Income Generation Project for Afghans for Civil Society and lives in Kandahar. Mary Littrell is a professor, Department Head Emerita of Design and Merchandising, a research associate at the Museum of International Folk Art, and serves as chair of the Artist Selection Committee for the International Folk Art Market. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Paula Lerner was an award-winning photojournalist and multimedia producer. She was the principal photographer for the Emmy Award-winning project, Behind the Veil.

Read an Excerpt

Embroidering within Boundaries

Afghan Women Creating a Future

By Rangina Hamidi, Mary Littrell, Paula Lerner

Thrums Books

Copyright © 2017 Rangina Hamidi and Mary Littrell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9984523-6-4



Attributes (of peasant-tribal societies) perpetuate an inward-looking society where man is born into a set of answers.

Louis Dupree, Afghanistan

Afghan women wake each morning surrounded by boundaries in their lives. Viewed as a liability in this deeply patriarchal society, women remain dependent on men. Economic reliance has led women to adhere to their menfolk's set of answers as a guide to their actions. At home, the walled compound encloses women's daily activities. They leave only when their fathers, brothers, husbands, fathers-in-law, or sons allow. Most have been denied access to schooling or income-earning opportunities outside the home. On the street, women's voluminous burqas shroud their identities from male scrutiny. By remaining out of sight and conducting themselves in a shy and quiet manner, women bring honor and dignity to their household and lineage. Yet their voices are ignored, and autonomy as women does not exist.

An Internet search of the words, "Afghanistan, the worst place in the world to be a woman," reveals an abundance of government surveys, foundation reports, and accounts from Afghan women journalists confirming this assessment. The Human Development Index (HDI), published annually by the United Nations Development Programme, offers a composite national measure of achievement based on three indicators of human development: a long and healthy life based on life expectancy at birth, access to knowledge grounded in years of schooling, and a decent standard of living gauged by gross national income per person. Of the 188 countries measured in 2015, Afghanistan ranked number 171. Nearly 46 percent of Afghanistan's population lives in or near multidimensional poverty due to acute deprivations in education, healthcare, and living standards (water, electricity, cooking fuel, toilet facilities).

Closer examination of the UN indicators by gender presents a bleak outlook for Afghan women. While women have a slightly longer life expectancy than men (61.6 to 59.2 years), their education and income fall short. In 2015, women over age twenty-five had attended an average of 1.2 years of school, compared to 5.1 years for men. Women earned $506, while men made $3,227 per capita. In the aggregate, Afghan women have achieved a level of human development that is 60 percent of men's level — this in a country where education and economic attainment are already low.

What do these figures of poverty and gender inequality mean for daily life among Afghan women? In a country wracked by three decades of political, social, and economic turmoil, Afghan women face hardships, insecurity, and anxiety across multiple aspects of their lives. For a girl who has not yet reached age sixteen, she may be among the six out of ten girls in her age group who are already married. If she started school prior to marriage, further attendance will be denied. As a young teenage wife, she and her children face likely health traumas as she bears children in a child's body. Access to quality healthcare is grossly inadequate. Although a woman will have on average six live births, the risks of death are high for a young mother or for her children before age five. Expected by her husband and the larger society to give birth to male children, the pressure to produce boys will continue until she bears a male infant, or better still, multiple sons, over time.

Afghan women's hardships are exacerbated if they are among the country's 1.5 million widows, one of the highest proportions to total population among the world's nations. For more than thirty years, women have lived in fear that the lives of their husbands will be taken in the armed conflicts scarring the country. Teenage wives also face widowhood as older husbands die sooner than their child brides. Once a widow, women no longer have the social protection or economic support of a male. As Afghan journalist Zaghuna Kargar described, "People in Afghanistan don't see widows as human beings who have rights anymore. Losing a husband is not only about the pain of losing someone you love or someone very close to you. It is the pain of losing almost every freedom you have as a married woman."

To further compound their situation, widows' opportunities for remarriage are limited. A brother of the deceased husband presents the most common option, but then often she will be a second or third cowife. Should a widow marry outside her deceased husband's family, she stands to lose custody of her children. Afghan widows, at an average age of thirty-five, illiterate, and with more than four children, encounter immeasurable hurdles to provide for their children. Some widows, their lives dissolving into days of desperation, resort to begging on the street.

Irrespective of a woman's age or marital status, her days are consumed by caring for children, baking bread, preparing meals, washing clothes, cleaning, and tending to animals kept within the compound. Husbands and in-laws commonly inflict emotional and physical abuse, given women's low status in the household. Abused women are consistently denied their constitutional rights designed to protect them from domestic violence. Mental healthcare and centers for traumatized women are virtually non-existent. Should a woman want her daughters to attend school, she typically will meet resistance from her husband, father-inlaw, and brothers-in-law. As a woman with limited or no schooling and in a culture that prohibits women from appearing in public, the Afghan woman knows little about options for her life. She has few skills and little time for generating sustainable income outside the home. Boundaries restrict and engulf her life in many ways.


Embroidered boundaries enclose the fine decorative filling stitches of Kandahari women's khamak embroidery. And embroidery is the one sphere of women's lives that men do not control. Its precision, delicacy, and beauty stand in stark contrast to the imperatives of a typical Afghan woman's life. Though the technique is basically a simple satin stitch, the way it is employed in Kandahari textiles is unique and stands with the finest embroidery techniques the world has known. Across generations of Kandahari families, khamak textiles are shared as expressions of love — sister to brother, mother to child, wife to husband, and daughter to parents. Through adorning the body and decorating the home with khamak textiles, Kandahari people honor their families and express pride and identity with their Pashtun culture.

Across Afghanistan's decades of violence, lives have been disrupted. Little time or energy has remained for passing down cultural traditions. As roads and buildings have collapsed to rubble, Afghan traditions have deteriorated. Aesthetics of khamak's fine stitchery and intricate patterns have largely been lost. Creating beauty and maintaining artistic traditions have not been priorities during wartime conflict. This book sheds light, for the first time, on the role that the revival of khamak embroidery during the 21st century is playing in a country working to create stability in the lives of its people.

Despite their cultural significance in Afghanistan, khamak textiles are little known outside the country. Kandahar residents describe the khamak embroidery style as centuries old. Reference to the word khamak in published textile books proves elusive. Scholars assert that a pan-Afghan embroidery style does not exist; rather, across time, each of the country's diverse ethnic groups has created its own characteristic embroidery style. Published photographs of Afghan garments from the 1930s and 40s and descriptive text point to men's shirts and women's shawls embellished with extremely fine, white-on-white satin stitch embroidery as a "style of the Pashtun people of Kandahar." Authors describe the illustrated Kandahari men's shirt fronts as "magnificent" with their embroidered "Pashtun satin stitches." These photos correspond closely with contemporary embroidery produced among Kandahari Pashtun women, speaking to a tradition that has somehow managed to survive and been reborn.


The revival of khamak embroidery focuses on the untold story of the pioneering women of Kandahar Treasure, an artisan organization in conflict-battered Kandahar, a city considered the home of the Taliban movement in southern Afghanistan. Kandahar Treasure was founded with the goal of creating links among the revival and production of textiles, income generation, and women's attainment of basic human rights in a Muslim society.

Kandahar Treasure provides work for culturally home-bound women, an important first step in securing their economic independence. One-third of the women working with Kandahar Treasure are widows or heads of households. The organization operates from the premise that women's value in the household rises when they contribute financially in caring for themselves and their children. As Carmella Padilla, international folk art authority, notes, "In Afghanistan, when decades of war wipe out venerable examples of cultural art, sales of embroidered textiles help resurrect an artistic tradition and restore pride in women who carry on the tradition." Today, more than 300 women embroider khamak within aesthetic and cultural boundaries as they create new answers for their lives.

In telling the story of Kandahar Treasure, we reflected on a series of questions to guide our exploration — questions such as: To whom is khamak important? How has the tradition evolved? Why form an enterprise centered on embroidery? How does a women's enterprise operate given the many cultural and religious limitations on women's lives? Is khamak making a difference to the women of Kandahar Treasure? Are the women redefining the boundaries for their lives? To answer these questions, we've organized the book into three parts.

The first three chapters create context for understanding the lives of Kandahar Treasure women and highlight the importance of khamak-embroidered textiles in the lives of Pashtun people. Across these chapters, we enlarge upon the literal boundaries that define women's lives in Pashtun culture with its strict code of honor, and reflect on how their embroidery serves as a metaphor for living creatively and finding meaning within those boundaries. We look at the role khamak-embroidered garments and household textiles play as cultural markers for Afghan families — both in Kandahar and more broadly within the Afghan diaspora.

The next three chapters tell the story of Kandahar Treasure and its women embroiderers. In these chapters we chronicle Rangina Hamidi's journey to establish Kandahar Treasure — beginning with her family's flight to Pakistan, their immigration to the U.S., her return to her homeland to manage an income-generating project, and later discovering a resolution to find a way to help rebuild Afghanistan by founding the first women-run business in Kandahar Province.

We give voice to women who are actively creating change in their lives.

We examine stages in Kandahar Treasure's evolution, and discuss strategies that the organization has employed to work within a conservative Muslim culture and to navigate continuing conflict and insecurity while building a sustainable artisan organization.

Not least, we introduce the technique of khamak stitching itself and look at innovations in the revival of khamak as a living textile tradition.

The final two chapters provide an assessment of challenges, successes, and the future for Kandahar Treasure. We place Kandahar Treasure's evolution within broader frameworks of social entrepreneurship and discuss factors impinging on Kandahar Treasure's long-term organizational sustainability. We give special consideration to the implications for Afghan widows working with Kandahar Treasure.

Throughout, you'll find the stories of women whose lives have been transformed by Kandahar Treasure. We give voice to women who are actively creating change in their lives. Together the women provide their own accounts of their journeys to revive a tradition of beautiful textiles during violent warfare, to make a living from their work, to take control over their lives and those of their children, and to redefine their boundaries.


Brick by Brick

Nargisa's Story

As with many Afghan families, Nargisa heads a household that has lost menfolk during the war and has embraced children orphaned by family misfortunes. Nargisa's first marriage lasted one month; her young husband died at the hands of the Taliban. Following Pashtun custom, she then married her brother-in-law. With her second husband she bore four children, all of whom are still young. The children knew their father for only a short time, as he too died in Taliban combat. The oldest daughter, in her teens and pregnant, has returned to the household after a divorce. The soon-to-be-born infant likely will be returned to her former husband; he retains legal right to the baby even though they are divorced. The remaining three children include a teenage boy with developmental disabilities and two younger daughters, ages eleven and twelve. Nargisa also provides a home to two orphans. One, a tiny five-year-old boy, was one of triplets whose mother could not care for her three infants. The mother kept the two strongest babies and Nargisa is rearing the third child, whose small body suggests delayed growth. She is also caring for her late sister's daughter. The father remarried and the stepmother did not want the child.

Nargisa's small compound of uneven outer walls, two inner rooms, and a rutted dirt courtyard attests to the story of its construction for her family of seven. For many years, Nargisa embroidered khamak and sold it in the neighborhood wherever she could to support her family. A small revenue stream from a few khamak sales continues. After some time, she secured a job as a cleaning lady in the Department of Women's Affairs. Nargisa earns 5,000 afghanis ($73 US) per month, 1500 afghanis ($14 US) of which goes for her bus transportation to work. Somehow, across the years, she managed to save 60,000 afghanis ($875) to buy the land for her house on the far outskirts of Kandahar.

At first the family lived in a tent. Upon returning home in the evenings Nargisa would collect water and make adobe for building the compound walls and the rooms where the family resides. In one room, the green and white textiles of Nargisa's embroidered wedding trousseau from many years ago cover the walls and storage trunks. Across the courtyard, a string of crooked poles holds up the jerrybuilt wiring that brings electricity into the house. The young girls have commandeered a walled-off section of the courtyard for their playhouse. The girls giggle as they arrange their dollhouse and dress stick dolls in fabric scraps. A shelf holds an array of used cosmetic containers for a pretend beauty parlor. (The mirror and beauty supplies replicate the establishments where women have their hair elaborately curled and make-up applied prior to attending women-only wedding receptions.)


Excerpted from Embroidering within Boundaries by Rangina Hamidi, Mary Littrell, Paula Lerner. Copyright © 2017 Rangina Hamidi and Mary Littrell. Excerpted by permission of Thrums Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


PREFACE: Our Writing Journey,
CHAPTER ONE: Embroidering within Boundaries,
Brick by Brick: NARGISA'S STORY,
CHAPTER TWO: Pashtun Culture and Boundaries in Women's Lives,
A Serious Businesswoman: NOORYA'S TALE,
CHAPTER THREE: Khamak in the Lives of Afghan Families,
CHAPTER FOUR: The Family's Journey to the West and Back,
Becoming an Independent Woman: ZIA JAAN'S STORY,
CHAPTER FIVE: Kandahar Treasure,
A Mother and Daughter Find Freedom: MUZLIFA AND GULSIKA,
CHAPTER SIX: Khamak as a Living Tradition,
Conflict Negotiator: KAMAR GUL'S STORY,
CHAPTER SEVEN: Approaching the Future with Pride and Apprehension,
Eight Embroidering Daughters: AMINA'S TALE,
CHAPTER EIGHT: Kandahar Treasure: Creating a Future,
Photography Credits,

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