Former head of Design and Merchandising co-authors book on Afghan women’s embroidery

On April 12, former head of the Colorado State University Department of Design and Merchandising Mary Littrell spoke at CSU about her recently published book co-authored with Rangina Hamidi.

In the book, Embroidering within Boundaries: Afghan Women Creating a Future, published by Thrum Books, Littrell explores the lives of Afghan women who embroider textiles to sell in order to provide for their families. Littrell spoke as part of the Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising lecture series.

In her lecture, Littrell told the story of Hamidi, who founded Kandahar Treasures, an entrepreneurial enterprise that exists to help women earn a living through the production of traditional Kandahar embroidery called khamak.

We asked Littrell about her experiences in war-torn Afghanistan, where she traveled to learn more about the women working for Kandahar Treasures.

Mary Littrell and Rangina Hamidi in burqas
Mary Littrell (left) and Rangina Hamidi (right) in their burqas

Q: What was the process for writing this book? How did you decide to write about this?

Rangina and I had first met and talked over the years at the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe about Kandahar Treasure, the beautiful textiles the women make, and challenges they face. In 2014, I invited Rangina to speak at the annual conference of the Textile Society of America in Los Angeles. At the end of her presentation, a woman stood up and said, “You have to write a book. You have to tell this inspiring story.” Rangina’s response was that she was not a writer and had a lot to do just working with the group. Later I asked her, “What if we write the book together, as you have the story and I’m a published author?” Our inspiring journey began at that point.

Q: What challenges did you face while writing this book?

Working across the miles between Santa Fe and Kandahar, Afghanistan, was relatively easy. From Rangina’s side, the electrical power and internet are intermittent, so it sometimes took longer than she wanted to get back to me on our chapter drafts. My greatest challenge was that I wanted to be sure that Rangina was comfortable with everything we were writing about the women, given that the society is so deeply conservative and male-dominated.

We explained to the women that we were writing a book about Kandahar Treasure, and that we will tell their story, while also honoring their requests as to whether to be photographed. From the beginning they were very enthusiastic that their story of a successful artisan enterprise be told. I took copies of several of the previous books that Thrums has published with me (one on Peru and one on Guatemala) to show the women. They were fascinated and although they couldn’t read the text, they turned the pages slowly, looking carefully at the photos and smiling along the way.

Q: Tell us a little about your experience in traveling to Afghanistan

Basically I was very limited in travel in Kandahar. I talked with the women singly and in groups at the workshop. Then a number of women invited me to their homes for tea and conversation. Usually the host would gather her female family members and neighbors so we often were a group of up to 20 women sitting together and sharing about our lives. Other than driving to and from the women’s homes, the airport, and a Kandahar Treasure shop in an upscale area of Kandahar, I did not get to travel otherwise. When Rangina and I left the workshop compound, we had on our burqas and were driven by men guards. Once we arrived at a home, we were whisked inside, our burqas removed, and we went to the woman host’s private room for our time together.

Q: What does publishing this book mean to you?

This book means many things to me. First, it is an honor to tell the women’s story of bravery, creativity, and life changes as being a part of Kandahar Treasure. We hear so much about the constant wartime in Afghanistan and the continuing danger and uncertainty. Yet, women get on with their lives and the book tells how one group of women has survived and thrived. Second, I’ve written several books about artisan groups, one in India, and another centered on Guatemala. While life is challenging for poor women in those countries, I wanted to understand how poor and extremely sheltered women in a country like Afghanistan could found and carry out an artisan group in a war-torn environment. What was unique about these women and Rangina was their founder and leader that led to their continued determination over a 12-year period.

Afghan Women Embroidering

Q: When writing about and talking to these women, what did you learn?

I learned so much, but one thing continually comes to mind. That is, how important it has been for these women at Kandahar Treasure to have an income that contributes so significantly to their households — particularly feeding their children and very large households where men, if present, often are out of work or have irregular work. This income contributes to very basic aspects of life. I also became aware of how brave the women were to even leave their homes each day and make their way to the workshop, given the continuing insurgency, and men’s treatment of women on the street, even when they are in burqas.

Q: What inspired you about these women?

While in Afghanistan, I was constantly reminded and thought a lot about the importance of education for women. What would their lives be like, even with a few years of elementary education?  When the women asked me how many years I had gone to school and I told them 22 years (13 years of kindergarten through 12th grade, four years of university, and five years of graduate school), their eyes got so big. I felt I was telling them about a world about which they could not even imagine.  Embroidering within Boundaries book cover

Q: What do you hope people get out of this book when they read it?

As I said earlier, we hear so much about the constant wartime in Afghanistan, the continuing danger and uncertainty, and how women’s options for their lives are so limited. Yet this book shows how women get on with their lives, and the book tells how one group of women have survived and thrived. This message was Rangina’s primary goal for the book. After I spent time in Afghanistan, I understood why this message was so important to Rangina, and it became my message as well.

Q: How does it feel to come back to CSU to speak to students, faculty and the community about your current work?

It was wonderful to return to CSU to share what I have been doing over the past three years and to see once again so many familiar faces in the audience. During my seven years at CSU, my major responsibilities as department head of Design and Merchandising left little time for teaching, which I dearly love. While at CSU, one of my very enjoyable responsibilities was to work closely with the college team seeking funding for the Avenir Museum. Thus, it was particularly gratifying to return to CSU in an informal teaching role at the Avenir, which is a real CSU treasure.

Q: Is there anything else you want people to know about this book, the women, or your experience?

People usually ask if I was scared or uneasy while in Kandahar. My answer is no for several reasons. First, I know Rangina, my host and co-author, very well and have spent time with her, her husband, and daughter when they were in the U.S. and with her U.S.-based extended family over several years. I knew that Rangina would be doing everything in her power to keep us both safe while I was in Afghanistan. Second, my training in cultural anthropology field research has served me well for many years in being sensitive to culture nuances for behavior. I anticipated that Rangina and the Kandahar Treasure women would lead me and indeed they were expert guides during a very busy visit to Kandahar.

Q: What do you plan to do next now that this book has been published?

I very much enjoy giving talks about the book and to exchange ideas with the audiences, so I hope to do more talks in the coming year. I’m now working on a prospectus for another book that I’ll submit to Thrums Books for their consideration. The book will explore how textile artisans around the world, particularly young artists, are innovating in amazing ways from within their community’s textile traditions. Textile traditions are living traditions and under constant change. Young artists are at the forefront of change.

The Department of Design and Merchandising is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.