Khairpur diaries: Where women earn and women rule

by Hifza Jillani

Khairpur Railli Rilli Quilts

This entire village in Sindh earns a living by its women making rillis, giving its women an almost matriarchal status.

KHAIRPUR: A splash of colours on both sides of the National Highway in the areas leading to and from village Haji Peer Bux Solangi in Thehri, district Khairpur, is a pretty sight. Countless rillis (patch-work quilts) of varying patterns are hung up for exhibit and sale.

The men on the road, safeguarding the rillis and entertaining the customers, usher buyers they know or trust to the women in the house. The women, who are responsible for these works of art, have spent days and weeks on each rilli quilt, bent upon them, putting pieces together with precision and passion.

In Pakistan’s rural areas, a well-known proverb is “it takes a village to raise a child”. Far from urban sensibilities, in most of rural Pakistan, people still work as a community and as a big family unit. But this particular village in Sindh consisting of 200 households takes it one step forward. They share not just the land they live on but are bound by earning through the same profession. Located far from the hustle and bustle of city life, this entire village relies on the rillis their women make as a source of earning. In this village, one sees a role model of sustainability, peace and development.

While the traditional and ancient art of rilli-making is practiced all over Sindh, it is not the only occupation in any one community, except for this village. Going to one of the houses,The Express Tribune saw the patchwork being done.

“Putting patches together takes all day, but we train our girls to do it fast,” said Mukhtiar, the lady of the house who has the status of the head of the family. With the main earning members of this village being women, the set-up is almost matriarchal.

“I believe we women can even rule the world if given the opportunity,” said 18-year-old Neelum Solangi, who is in charge of a rilli-making training centre in the village. “Our women are exceptionally talented and dedicated towards benefitting the village,” she said, her doe-eyes wide in excitement.

When asked if it’s hard to train the daughters, Mukhtiar replied, “The patterns and technique come naturally to the girls.” She said they get down to doing it from the age of three.

“We use different kinds of cloth for our rilli,” said Qaim Khatoon, head of another household. “Our girls have become very creative with colours and designs, but we still maintain the traditional folk patterns,” she said, smiling.

Patching up dreams together

The word ‘rilli’ means ‘to connect’ or the conjoining of something. This artwork is used for quilts, cushions, sheets and even clothes. While the rilli was always made by hand, today machines have taken over.

The cultural significance of rillis can be gauged from the fact that no girl is sent to her new house after marriage without a rilli. Thus, Sindhi marriages are incomplete without the presence of rillis in a girl’s dowry and rillis are significant in celebrations, just like the ajrak.

When a guest arrives, a rilli will be spread out for the guest or is given to them to honour and acknowledge their coming to their house, as a sign of Sindh’s unrelenting tradition of hospitality.

The village hub

Across the road from the houses, in another corner of the village, a well-made brick house is a centre set up by Qurban Solangi, another villager.  This serves as a rilli-making centre created with the help of district management and the Sindh government. The centre is called Peace Quilts and Crafts Organisation, which trains women and puts up better-designed and creative rilli, all pulled off by Neelum. “My father takes care of the logistics, while I solely take care of the creative side.” So far 200 women from the village have been trained in this centre to create better rillis.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 13th, 2013.

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