Long before hopeful initiatives started popping up with the quest for democracy, Bashayer Cooperative Workshop was empowering women in Helwan. The organisation has been officially registered since 2004 but its workshop aiming to increase female representation in local society has been functioning since 1996.
“The original aim was developing the local society in Helwan and to provide social, cultural and economic activity. As an organisation we started with things like a nursery and workshops for youth. Then we started tricot and crochet workshops for women. Our goal is to boost female representation in all aspects of society,” said Marwa Farouk, head of marketing at Bashayer.
For Bashayer, this kind of representation is based on the idea that making your own products will empower you both economically and socially. “Our products include table cloths, home and kitchen accessories, women’s clothing and children’s clothing,” said Farouk. Bashayer states their aim is to create high-quality artisan-level accessories and apparel for both the local and international markets, though Farouk said this has been a challenge since the 25 January uprising of 2011.
“We have been finding it difficult to maintain our level of production because of the economic problems Egypt has been facing since 2011. Our outlets have dwindled to five and we barely get visits from tourists like we used to any more. We no longer have those customers that take our products with them and so raise awareness about us,” she said.
Last year the women at Bashayer showed their spring and summer collections and displayed their products at the Mounaya gallery in Cairo in June. Although this is likely to boost awareness of their products, Farouk said Bashayer will have to assess the feasibility of planning another gallery display because they are in a vulnerable position.
“We are working on catalogues as well as on the ability for our customers to buy products through the Facebook page but this is yet to come. For now, customers can obtain our products through outlets like Fair Trade Egypt, the Bio Shop, Style and Bashayer [which is unrelated despite the name],” she added.
The women of Bashayer are also making an appearance in the Osar Al-Montega fair on Nasr City’s fair grounds, which runs until 13 January. Farouk said participation in Bashayer’s workshop is free of charge and that they mostly target women from low-income, informal neighbourhoods in Helwan. “We include women from places like El Ezba or Maasara and we teach them crochet. Once they get the hang of it, they go right into production,” Farouk said.
She added that at the moment the struggle is with raising awareness: “We have been running for more than 10 years and have helped a lot of women. But right now the biggest problem we face is with marketing. We need more awareness so people know where to find us.”
Though Bahsayer’s economic woes are unlikely to end any time soon, their successful model of empowering women in Helwan has had a deep and positive impact on the communities it engages, and we hope that the current problem of generating awareness will be transient and will not stop the production of the high quality hand crafted products by the women of Helwan.