By Shima Shahrabi
January 3, 2019
With their elegant and colorful needlework designs, the “moonlight” needlewomen have made the little village of Ghasemabad in Sistan and Baluchistan province known across Iran.
Many years ago a woman by the name of Mahtab (“Moonlight”) Nowruzi, who came from this little village in the province’s Bampour rural district, was chosen to make dresses for the royal court of Iran and for Empress Farah. Some dresses displaying her needlework talent can still be found in the collections of former royal palaces in Saadabad and Niavaran in Tehran but generally, the art of this authentic Baluchi needlework was gradually forgotten. Low-quality specimens, many of them coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan, saturated the market and pushed the Baluchi work to the sidelines.
But for Mahtab, it was important to preserve the art of Baluchi needlework.
Although Mahtab never married or had children, she treated all village girls as if they were her own daughters and taught them what she knew.
Now Mahtab’s niece, Zeinab Nowruzi, is preserving her aunt’s heritage. Mahtab began teaching Zeinab the art of Baluchi needlework when she was eight. During her time as a university student, the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization of Iran recognized Zeinab as a master of the art and began placing orders for her work to be sold at handicraft shops. Zeinab and other village women were busy filling the orders when the orders suddenly stopped. The village became filled with middlemen with access to a bigger market and more customers. They paid the needlewomen a small amount of money and pocketed the difference.
So Zeinab decided to set up a workshop. With a loan of three million tomans (close to US$700) from the Cooperatives Development Fund, she founded a cooperative together with 35 women from the village.
The going was tough. The fabrics they needed were expensive and so were silk threads, but they persevered and little by little, things got better.
Mahtab died in 2012 but her art has been kept alive by the women of her village. Now more than 150 people work at Zeinab’s workshop — and make a living out of it. In an interview with the newspaper Shahrvand [Persian link], she said this needlework is now the basis of the village’s economy. “Ghasemabad village has been a center of Baluchi needlework since 70 years ago,” she says. “At the time the main source of the village’s income was agriculture and animal husbandry but, in the last two decades, drought has destroyed agriculture and animal husbandry and now, besides [the government’s] cash subsidies, Baluchi needlework is the only source of income for households. To find work, men go to Bandar Abbas, Chabahar [two ports in southern Iran] and Qeshm Island or, if they have the means, they carry passengers [as a taxi service].”
Needlework and the Village’s Survival
Each woman works five or six hours for the cooperative and makes around 800,000 tomans, or a little over $180 a month. Their customers often demand high-quality Baluchi needlework and are not satisfied with low-quality imports. “The price of a Baluchi needlework depends on the design, the pattern, the size of the fabric and the thread used to make it,” says Zeinab. “But on average and if we use silk thread…for each square meter we pay around six million tomans [a little over $1365] in wages. Of course…the final cost of an order depends on various parameters.”
They’ve given their handicrafts the brand name “Mahtab’s Daughter,” and with that, they set themselves an even bigger goal. They want the world to know their brand name — just like in the days that the Iranian Handicraft Organization exported their work to Europe. “Baluchi needlework had a brilliant past in the market,” Zeinab says. “Many of the products…were exported to European countries, but today we would be deceiving ourselves if we imagined that there are thriving markets for Baluchi needlework in European or Persian Gulf countries. The market for exquisite Baluchi needlework disappeared many years ago through the competition of products from countries like India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia.”
In the last few years, the cooperative has held many exhibitions in Tehran to introduce its work to the Iranian public. The most recent exhibition was held at the Iranian Artists Forum in Tehran on the anniversary of Mahtab’s death, and it attracted many visitors. The women opened the exhibition by showing samples of their work and talking about their art.
So now more Iranians are familiar with the “Mahtab Daughters” brand. But these women are reaching for more. They want to introduce their brand to the world market.