With Lihaaf, a quilting project, artist Arshi Ahmadzai and her collaborators embroider a challenge to patriarchy

Shailaja Tripathi
·2 min read

In her 20s, Jaza Parveen is introduced to me by the artist Arshi Ahmadzai as a "warrior". Jaza is among the first women of her community in Najibabad, Uttar Pradesh, to pursue higher education.

"I managed to finish my graduation with great difficulty, after which, I was told to discontinue my education," she says. Instead, Jaza quietly applied for a Master's in Sociology. "Every day I am told that I will be married off soon. In community gatherings, functions, I am given strange looks and taunted."

When Arshi Ahmadzai conceptualised "Lihaaf", a quilting project, she brought together Jaza and 20 other women from Najibabad to work on a seven-metre scroll. The women are of varying ages, of Muslim faith, and belong to the Nat community. As they worked on the scroll, they sang bhajans, recited verses from the Quran, and traded life stories.

Jaza stitched the pattern of a salwar on the scroll. Arshi recounts how she gave Jaza Manto's Kali Shalwar to read, and why the story resonated with the young woman: "Jaza tells me she is not allowed to wear jeans by her family. She can only wear salwar kameez. A piece of cloth is used as a marker of being a righteous and obedient woman€¦ It's a battle Jaza has to fight on a daily basis," Arshi says.

I spoke with Arshi, Jaza and several other women from the Lihaaf-The Quilt project over a video call last month. Their work (Lihaaf is realised within the framework of Five Million Incidents, 2019-2020, conceived by Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan in collaboration with Raqs Media Collective) was meant to be exhibited in April this year, but had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Its making can presently be viewed on Instagram.

Arshi has a Bachelor's in Fine Arts from Aligarh Muslim University and a Master's from Jamia Millia Islamia. Her art practice reflects on women's issues, and is rooted in personal experiences. Born and raised in Najibabad, Arshi, who is of Afghan descent, now shuttles between Delhi and Kabul.

€" All photos and video courtesy Arshi Ahmadzai

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