Focus on Women

Helping India's Village Women with the Exquisite Designs of Farah Shawls

Farah Shawls are designed and handmade by India's village women, helping them rise out of poverty and bring cultural changes. The beauty of the shawls is only achieved through the power of entrepreneurship.
By Paul Lachhu

The word "shawl" in Western countries tends to evoke an image of a frail elderly woman trying to find warmth. Farah Kahn, the Founder and Director of Kashmir Krafts, would never understand that limited image because her private brand label Farah Shawls products are exquisite, hand embroidered or hand woven shawls, scarves and stoles that are worn by women who appreciate beauty, creativity, and high quality in textiles. The intricate designs are produced by women artisans in India who are in great need of employment because they are either living in poverty, or are war widows or domestic abuse victims, and all only needed someone to believe in their potential. Farah is passionate about helping other women by utilizing her passion for textiles, but to do so, she has had to overcome enormous challenges herself that included lack of capital, working in a war zone, accessing local women in rural villages where there are no roads, and learning entrepreneurial skills.

Entrepreneurship Takes Root
Farah's story is proof that one person who perseveres really can make a difference in the lives of others. She is from India and has adored textiles since she was a child. However, she grew up in a very conservative family and that means never getting an opportunity for professional employment or to learn about entrepreneurship. She was quite young when she married an army officer while living in Kashmir, and it is in Kashmir where the entrepreneurial drive - a quality she did not consciously recognize she possessed because of her background - found solid ground. "In Kashmir, I learned the nuances of making beautiful embroideries, scarves, and other textiles," she explains. "I had two small children and no money, but I started exhibiting my work in local exhibitions."

That was all it took. She was invited to Atlanta to exhibit her textiles. It was Farah's first introduction to global marketing, and a whole new world of travel and networking was opened to her. Today, the annual Global Summit of Women is never missed. To fully appreciate her success, it is important to understand the difficult challenges she faced as an entrepreneurial Indian woman. In her words, "When I first started the business 15 years ago, our culture did not approve of women traveling overseas and leaving their children at home. I was frequently asked how I could leave my family, and the pressure came from my family and my husband's family. I had financial difficulties, too." She was also living and working in a war zone where her life was put in danger many times. Farah overcome the challenges, continuing the international travel and producing beautiful handmade products.

Shawls for Women Around the World
Farah Shawls' products are very special. There are unique designs, fine embroideries, and the best silk or wool. Everything that goes into the shawls is pure and beautiful. Farah has developed a universal product line. "Shawls are a fashion item that women of all ages from all countries and of all colors like to wear. I now sell shawls in the U.S., UK, European Union and Indian markets." That is just the beginning of the story.

Asked about what she gives back to the community, she first talks appreciatively about what she has received from society. Farah accredits the recognition and support from prestigious groups like the Global Summit of Women and the Indian Army Organization as major factors in her success. She is the only woman who has operated a commercial store in the Indian Army Command Headquarters, and her customers included a host of army, navy and air force dignitaries. "Now I want to give back to society so other women have opportunities to improve their economic status and strengthen their families," says Farah.

Empowering Women
Empowerment is an action word for Farah. Approximately four years ago, Farah began working with women in local villages, training them and army war widows on strategies for starting small embroidery businesses. This is not an easy task because most of the Indian villages are extremely poor and have no roads, no electricity, and no public transportation. Other than walking, bicycles and scooters are the primary modes of transportation, and neither are affordable for poverty stricken women. "I support these women by offering training and educational seminars on business, health and hygiene; providing them an outlet for their products; and helping them join government organizations that offer assistance selling directly to the market," explains Farah. The women producing the exquisite shawls can sell to Farah Shawls or sell directly to the buyers that Farah brings to the villages.

Farah sells through the India Mart as well as online and at exhibitions and trade fairs. She had her beautiful shawls on display at the Global Summit of Women conference. Farah Shawls employs 300 registered artisans and 600 artisans who are not registered. Employment brings stability to family relationships and hope to families living in extreme poverty. That explains Farah's long term goal of opening a resource center which will have all the facilities the women artisans need to success. "It will be a place where they find child care, food, and opportunities to learn about designs and to bring their own innovative designs," says Farah. She envisions owning buses and picking the women up at their homes and taking them home at the end of the work day.

Do Not Be Disheartened
All these plans take money, one of the top challenges to pursuing goals. Yet, Farah's practical perspective should inspire all who let challenges stop them from reaching their dreams. "Things have been difficult for women for a long time, but women should not be disheartened," says Farah. She continues, "Recognize that men and women are different, but women are just as capable of making their living, doing special things, being strong, building businesses, and keeping families intact." Her perspective reflects her extensive international travel during which she has met many women from different countries. She has learned a lot from them and continues to learn about the needs of women, technology, methods for improving designs, and much more. She also empowers herself by completing courses online. Farah is a remarkable woman who has overcome enormous odds to develop a successful business with cultural relevance. She is truly an inspiration.