In Dhaka, the hustling capital city of Bangladesh, a domestic violence shelter helps abused women to support themselves and their families by encouraging them to do what they know best – make beautiful handmade products especially bedsheets. Basically, these handmade bedsheets are found in most households in Bangladesh and are considered a tradition.
Inspired to empower the abused women and share their crafts with the world, Veil, a social enterprise started by Bangladeshi Sumaiya Rabeya and based in Malaysia works with the shelter to market their products, under the ‘Nakshi’ brand name which means design. At the same time, Sumaiya is also doing her Masters in International Relations at Islamic International University Malaysia.
Shelter Provides Sanctuary
Currently, the 4-room shelter in Dhaka houses around 25 women who have ran away from their homes due to being beaten by their men and sometimes even by their in-laws. Some have been ordered to leave their homes just because their husbands do not want them anymore and some have lost their spouses.
Once a woman is married off, her family often takes no more responsibility towards her so she will not go back to burden them. Some end up working in government factories that leave them deprived, laborious and abused. The shelter provides a safe sancturay for them.
There are other women in the community who also come to the shelter only to work but do not stay there. Some of them have children and some are even still married but the husbands are not working or providing enough so they need to work to generate some income. Most of these women are illiterate and what they can do is to sew and cook. Besides making handmade bedsheets and clothing items, sometimes they take orders for food.
Social Bottom Line Comes First
Veil prioritizes social profit more than anything else. Although they do need to cover the costs of bringing the products to Malaysia, the profit gained from the sales in Malaysia mainly goes back to cover the operations of the shelter and back to the women. Because of the difference in currency, the profits made in Malaysia will multiply when they are brought back to Bangladesh.
The Zilzar Life team had the opportunity to chat with Veil to learn more about their handmade bedsheets.
Tell us how did you start this brand Veil?
Back home in Dhaka, Bangladesh, my mum has a shelter for women, the domestically abused women, we were trying to have some handmade things sold. This is a unique product of my country. Last year when I went back home we were looking at the product, basically every household has this bedsheets, it’s kind of a tradition.
Me and my husband were buying this for our home, so I was thinking why don’t we bring it to Malaysia and let people see it because we only know, Bangladeshi, about such a nice product. So this was our inspiration, to let the rest of the world, starting from Malaysia, know about it. We are not big entrepreneurs but we would like people to know about this culture.
Another thing, the human side of it, is that it is mostly made by women. Bangladeshi women are not yet into the corporate life because of the culture and other things there, so to be able to give them a way to earn their own income this is a huge empowerment for them. The abused women in my area are illiterate they don’t know how to work but they know how to sew. So this is their life and this is how they support their families, so if we can bring this world wide then it will help those women too.
Many people around Bangladesh know how to do this embroiderly. They are mostly women, the unprivileged women because this is what they can do, cook and sew. And with the money earned, they can support and raise their families. The labour is quite cheap back in Bangladesh.
How long does it take to produce a bedsheet?
It can take up to two to three months. Making one bedsheet is a group work of two to three women, because if its only done by one woman, then she will take five months.
Is the design of the bedsheet determined by the person who sews it?
Usually it is and it is different from a person to another. Sometimes the design is repeated but they try not to do so. It’s kind of like Henna, you can’t repeat the exact design because it is just what comes to your mind at that time. Usually they will sketch the design first to determine what the design will look like.
Are there any specific symbols in the Bangladeshi culture?
Yes, there are many. Circles mean life or our life cycle, and the Lotus means luck.
In Bangladesh, during marriage, we also use this heart shaped leaf called the Pan. So, we refer the heart shape as Pan. Flowers also symbolizes nature.
Can you share more about the process of making the bedsheets? Do the women dye white cloth?
They don’t dye it because the cloth will lose its colour over time. They use thread and the thread itself is already coloured. But 20 or 30 years ago, our mothers and grandmothers used to take unused clothes and stretch them out to use them for the bedsheets.
So far, how is the feedback from the people who have purchased the bedsheets?
We haven’t officially launched yet but during the recent Ilms Arts Festival, we set up a booth there just to see how people would react to them. Many of them liked the bedsheets but most of them were Bangladeshis and Indians who already knew about them. There is still this barrier in Malaysia and we would like to break it to introduce the bedsheets to the masses as they are a very unique product of our country.
Beside bedsheets, are there any plans to introduce other products?
Yes, definitely. We have dresses too but first, we want to study the market. If there is a demand, we can bring them in because there are a wide variety of dresses, saries, and blankets.
Do you tell the Bangladeshi women about Malaysia when you go back?
Actually, they are are quite familiar with Malaysia because there are many Bangladeshis who are working here. We even have Malaysian dresses and food over there but we make the Malaysian dishes spicier and add other flavours to them to suit the tastes of the locals.
Tell us about the culture of Bangladesh.
Bangladeshis have a rich culture because we were under Mongol Empire, but because of the politics after 1971 things did not go as how it was. When we go back, we can see that the infrastructure is not there but when we get to people’s home the lifestyle is very much rich in a culture way. People have the wrong idea about Bangladesh here, they ask me are you sure from Bangladesh, are you on aid here, how are you studying.
Thanks Sumaiya! May your business do well. If there are any one who’s interested in buying Veil bedsheets, they should contact Sumaiya at firstname.lastname@example.org.