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She changed her own life, now she’s helping other women change theirs

Thursday, November 9, 2017

"All I had to do was say 'no' and it felt like I was reborn- this time with value." – Nasreen Shiekh

Former child laborer, unsure of her age or birthdate, banished from her village, an outcast in the eyes of those closest to her, Nasreen Shiekh gave up everything she had to stand up for herself and her right to be seen as a human being, becoming the first woman in her village to escape arranged marriage and lifelong oppression.

Shiekh, founder of Local Women's Handicrafts, a fair trade textile business in Kathmandu as well as a nonprofit women's collective, has been featured in Cosmopolitan, Forbes and Huffington Post for the work she is doing to help young women in Nepal.

She came to Dominican University, Thursday, November 16, following the university's Fair Trade Fair, to speak to Dr. Elizabeth Collier's business ethics classes and students in the fashion design and apparel merchandising program. She is in Chicago to serve as the keynote speaker for Chicago Fair Trade's Globalfest Gala on Friday, November 17.

Shiekh was born in a small village located in southern Nepal where most people don't even know what America is. She grew up in extreme poverty and, from as early as she can remember, was told that her role as a woman was to get married young and have a family. 

"Neither births nor deaths are recorded in my village," Shiekh said. "If something isn't bothered to be written down, does it even have value?"

As a young child, Shiekh was very sickly and came down with a severe case of pneumonia that almost cost her her life. He mom tried her very best to get her daughter proper care but it didn't look promising.   

"I remember being so sick and feeling so helpless," Shiekh said. "After pharmaceutical medicine didn't work the local doctor came and gave me natural medicine, passed on from generation to generation, that ended up curing me. Sometime later he came to me and my mom and told us that if I were a boy I would have not made it. As a woman, I have no choice but to survive and wait for my dowry."

Shiekh knew that she didn't want to be defined by a sum of money or goods and was sick and tired of watching the ways in which women in her village were ostracized, especially after witnessing the murder of her own aunt at the hands of her husband for being too outspoken.

There was little to no hope of change but Shiekh held on to whatever she could. Her older brother was living in the city and she would beg him to tell her stories about the city every time he called.

"I begged him for months to let me live with him," Shiekh said. "After a while he finally agreed, so I ran away. For the first two months, I would just sit in his tiny apartment and stare out the window. I was only nine or ten. It felt like I came out of a cave."

Soon enough, Shiekh started working at the same sweatshop as her brother, making a little over one dollar a day for 15-20 hours of hard labor.

"We lived in a seven-foot by seven-foot apartment," Shiekh said. "There were three of us. Oftentimes I would end up sleeping on the piles of clothes I made myself at the shop. I would even find threads in my food. I felt like I was never going to escape my horrible reality."

When she was walking home one afternoon, past a local school, she was startled by a dog that ran up to her. She was not allowed to touch any animals in her village, so she was unsure of what to do. The dog's owner, a teacher at the school, came up to her and told her that the animal was harmless and that she could pet it.

"That was the first time anyone told me I could do something," Shiekh said. "I ran up to the man, grabbed his hand and said 'Uncle, teach me'."

She spent the next few years learning with him, finally realizing that things could really be different. She started making clothes, handbags and scarves on the side to make some money, for once feeling pride in her work. At around 16, she left the sweatshop, rented a small space in Kathmandu and opened her business, Local Women's Handicrafts.

"The things we put ourselves into and make take on our energy, "Shiekh said. "I put love into my own products and so to me they are beautiful not like things I made at the sweatshop. That work was fueled by and made with bad energy."

Things seemed to be going great for Shiekh up until she turned 18, when her parents came to find her and informed her that it was time to get married. In her village, marriages were arranged and women were expected to be married between the age of 15 and 18. This conversation was one of her toughest moments, but at that moment her life began anew.

"My mother told me that I needed to get married and I said 'no'," Shiekh said. "There is nothing more heartbreaking than fighting with your own parents. I had to shut down my business for almost a month and hide from my family. I know that, from their perspective, I let them down but I had no other choice. I overcame my biggest fear. All I had to do was say 'no' and it felt like I was reborn- this time with value."

At the age of 22, Shiekh launched a women's nonprofit collective, which includes her business as well as training opportunities for disadvantaged women, educational services and safe shelter. The nonprofit is a small operation located 20 minutes outside Kathmandu. When Shiekh first came to America in 2015, she finally saw who was buying her clothes.

"I was so sad and disappointed," Shiekh said. "I would walk into department stores and cry, wondering why our world is so disconnected. How could Americans not know? How could they not care? I knew that I needed to do something and share my story so that they finally did."

Currently, there are 35 women employed at Local Women's Handicrafts and there is a shop in central Nepal as well as two nonprofit offices, one in Chicago and the other in Portland. Shiekh travels all over the world sharing her story and the stories of the women she helps. The products made by her and the women at Local Women's Handicrafts can be purchased at any location as well as online at localwomenshandicrafts.com.  

Shiekh has achieved worldwide recognition but has yet to get that recognition from those she loves most.

"To this day my mother and father have no idea of the extent to which I have achieved success," Shiekh said. "I would love for them to know so that maybe they wouldn't feel like they made a mistake as parents but I don't even think they could physically grasp it all. I made the tough choice of disappointing them so that I could raise awareness and help others."