Lessons in Sustainability: The Traditional Craft of Suzani in Tajikistan

Images: EFI/Big Style Media House

Ozara is a women’s social enterprise in Tajikistan. Jeanne de Kroon speaks to its founder Tahmina Karimova to find out how the project preserves traditional crafts while providing training and employment to vulnerable women in the local community.

We each give the world meaning by connecting and relating to it in our own unique way. A tomato grown in your own garden will always taste better than one bought from a shop, and a scarf hand-knitted by your mother is something you will never throw away. The way we connect to the story behind an object forms our relationship to these ‘things’. When it comes to the clothes we wear, however, the fashion industry has shifted the gaze from maker to model and through this very simple action, it has taken away any chance of us truly relating to clothing, the stories behind our clothes and our responsibility to cherish and take care of them.

Sustainability is not for sale but can be found in the relationship that we have with the world around us. So what can we learn from communities around the world and their relationship with a piece of fabric? And how does this translate into the sustainable revolution – as the most sustainable garment in the end is the one you keep the longest, cherish the most, repair until the threads fall apart and, most importantly, give meaning to.

In Tajikistan, the people’s relationship with their ancient cultural roots translates into the most beautiful arts and crafts, such as suzanis – large, hand-embroidered traditional textiles. The people now known as the Tajiks are the Persian speakers of Central Asia, some of whose ancestors inhabited the region for centuries. The craft of embroidering suzani derives from the Persian word ‘suzan’, which translates to needle.

Based in a northern region of the landlocked country of the Tajiks, Ozara is a social enterprise set up in 2014 by the National Association of Business Women in Tajikistan (NABWT) to provide women with an income-generating activity, and sell Tajik handmade embroidered objects – one of the most popular being suzanis. With help from Mohammad Aziz, an Afghan fulbright scholar who has been mapping Tajikistan’s artisans groups, and helping to build international connections to Ozara, I had the opportunity to speak with its founder, Tahmina Karimova, about the rich heritage and traditions of suzani embroidery.

Can you tell me more about Ozara – where does the name come from?

Ozara translates to ‘fire’ in Persian. We have a poet in Tajikistan called Mirzo Tursunzoda, who wrote poems about various daily life subjects and women. There is a famous sentence which goes: 

Zan agar otash nameshud, khom memondem mo. Norasida bodae dar jon memondem mo.

If a woman hasn’t been through the fire, we remain raw (uncooked). We would remain not fully developed, unable to rise.

If we don’t have women that personify fire, a community or society would be and remain ‘unbaked’ and the bread wouldn’t be ready to eat. The way women take care of a community is what makes society ‘rise’. I feel like this is what the organisation I set up aims to do. 

In what way do you see this ‘fire’ back in your community? 

This ‘fire’ also signifies the fire many of the women that work for this social enterprise have experienced; many have faced domestic abuse, amongst other problems. We work with the crisis shelter Gulrukhsor and sometimes they send a woman who wants to learn and work with us. First, we give her training on embroidery techniques like “Bosma” (stitching) and understanding on how to chain stitch. After the evaluation of the results of this training, we pass on orders and an opportunity to generate a monthly income. We welcome all women that want to work and are willing to learn. 

What kind of embroidery does Ozara create and what is the story behind that? 

We create suzani embroidery for the local market in Tajikistan and it has been expanding internationally. Now we work with the Ethical Fashion Initiative and hope to show and share more of our craft and traditions with the world.

Suzanis are deeply engrained in our heritage, and traditionally when a woman gets married, she receives a large one. The embroidered piece of cloth is made by the mother or grandmother of the bride and every element and symbol, personifies a wish that they have for the marriage. The bride walks into the house of her husband for the first time covered in this suzani, filled with wishes for the future. Without a suzani, a girl can’t get married. 

Every region in Tajikistan has their own symbols and colour combinations. You can always recognise where the marriage has taken place based upon certain elements and colours in the suzani. In the south part of Tajikistan you can find big flowers and various Zoroastrian symbols. These include, but are not limited to, earth, wind, fire, water and the four sides of the world like east, west, north and south. Certain flowers and circles mean sun. Every element of life is translated into fabric.

In the Penjakent Valley, suzanis mostly use traditional ornaments. The embroidery is done on white fabric with black thread. The philosophy behind this region’s suzanis is that life and death always walk hand in hand. The small red flowers you can find (dancing) in between the white and black are the moments of happiness we experience. In our region (northern region, Khujand) we mostly use the symbols of pomegranate and pepper. The pomegranate is a symbol of fertility and the pepper is a protection for the evil eye, in the form of male fertility.

What role did embroidery or the craft of suzani play in your life?

Traditionally every mother teaches her daughter how to embroider suzanis. I learned it from my mother, and she learned it from her grandmother. Sometimes you even pass down the same suzani cloth from generation to generation. Each mother embroiders new wishes onto the empty spaces and it becomes dense with all the wishes of your ancestors.

Not everybody is specialised in suzani. Some communities focus on Bosma stitching and some on a chain stitch. Due to globalisation, not all women now learn how to embroider, which is affecting our connections to our history, traditions and culture- suzani embroidery is deeply interwoven into our ancient traditions. You can also find pre-Islamic references, which have assimilated with the current culture and religion. We hope to continue this line and ancestral craft through the work of Ozara.