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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 October, 2004, 14:37 GMT 15:37 UK
Oasis women fashion their own freedom
By Sylvia Smith,
BBC in the Siwa oasis

Seamstress stitches material while showing gold ring and necklace she has bought
The women can now buy what they want - including jewellery - without asking any man

Embroidery lies behind a peaceful revolution in the very traditional Egyptian oasis of Siwa.

The small patch of green near the Libyan border currently holds dates as the mainstay of its economy.

But the income of the palm tree is slowly being eclipsed by the efforts of the women of the oasis.

Women - married and unmarried - are able to earn more than twice the average Siwan agricultural wage earned by men by skilfully wielding a needle.

Outside the home they are totally covered, from head to toe, and have no contact with the outside world. But their symbolic stitches are on show on the catwalk in Milan.

Painstaking work

When on holiday in Siwa three years ago Tony Scervino, an Italian fashion designer and one half of the Ermanno Scervino couture house, spotted the Berber patterns stitched on clothes sold in the local market.

The women are thrilled to be working in new colours - it's put them in direct contact with the fashion industry
Egyptian intermediary, Laila Neamatalla
Struck by the originality of the work, he decided to incorporate the embroidery in their next collection.

Through an Egyptian intermediary, Laila Neamatalla, he discovered that the embroidery was only done by elderly women.

So he arranged for younger women to be trained in the painstaking work.

He has swatches of exclusive fabric sent to the Egyptian capital, Cairo, from where it is taken more than 700 km (435 miles) to Siwa to be embroidered.

Then the fabric begins its long journey back to Italy.

Laila has witnessed the impact of the introduction of new colours into the women's repertoire.

"Before, the women only ever worked in the four colours known within the oasis - olive, brown, sand and green," she explains.

"Now the women are thrilled to be working in new colours. It's put them in direct contact with the fashion industry."

Taste of freedom

The married women still do not leave their homes, but recently the unmarried girls are beginning to work in a special house, or factory.

They enjoy getting together under the watchful eye of Laila.

She is in charge and has the power to employ new women as demand increases.

Woman embroiders a pair of Ermanno Scervino designer jeans
Embroidered jeans fetch high prices in Europe's top boutiques
"It's a dream come true having out own business," she says.

"My father sometimes sits at the door to make sure no one comes in, but really it is our first taste of freedom and independence."

About 30 women sit on the floor and quietly sew; they are paid by the number of garments they complete.

Although they are still using the traditional stitches and patterns, their lives have changed.

The money allows them to buy what they want without having to ask any man.

Mysterious symbols

At the other end of this business connection, their handwork is integrated into the exclusive, expensive garments that the cutting-edge Italian fashion house sends down the catwalk.

Sudanese model Alek Wek said she has a special feeling about wearing clothes that are decorated with Siwan embroidery.

Pockets, collars, cuffs and even whole garments are brought into Egypt under special "draw back" regulations that allow the delicately and patiently hand-stitched items to be re-exported without tax.

ES employee puts the finishing touches on a pink stitched bodice
Siwa's unique designs add exclusivity to the Italian catwalk
On their return to Italy, Ermanno Scervino's highly developed fashion know-how takes over and the glamorous end products are even more painstakingly assembled.

The bi-cultural, bi-continental co-operation is also a good illustration of how the Middle Eastern aesthetic is being integrated into Western products.

Perhaps surprisingly, not all the symbols are Islamic.

Leila Neamatalla, a Coptic Christian, remarks on the presence of fish and crosses, which she takes it as a sign that Christianity may have been present in the oasis before the Siwans converted to Islam in the 12th Century.

"But I haven't been able to find any other sign of a Christian presence in the oasis," she admits.

Exclusivity

As the designs that the women work on change from season to season, so their skill and enthusiasm grows.

This relationship works well for everyone. The original, unique designs which only exist in Siwa give an exclusivity to the twice-yearly Italian collections.

In return, the 500-strong Siwan female workforce can now afford their own home comforts and some luxury goods.

Having their own money also allows the young girls to be selective when it comes to choosing a husband. Very occasionally they decide not to marry at all.

In Italy wealthy women sport the clothes because they are chic and hip.

They are only just beginning to learn the origins of what they have on their backs.


SEE ALSO:
Q&A: The Berbers
12 Mar 04 |  Africa
Country profile: Egypt
09 Jul 04 |  Country profiles
South African women learn to earn
07 May 04 |  Business


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