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Embroidering at the edge : Mutwa women and change Hardy, Michele Arlene


This dissertation examines how a group of rural Muslim women in Western India are negotiating tradition and identity against a backdrop of dramatic change. The Mutwa are a small Muslim naat, an endogamous group claixning common descent. Originally from Sindh, for the past 8-10 generations they have lived in a cluster of villages along the northern frontier of Kutch, adjacent to the Pakistan border. Over the past 40 years, they have been forced to shift from pastoralism to wage labour, a shift that has encouraged the commoditisation of the embroidery traditionally produced by Mutwa women. Where embroidery was an important component of dowry and distinguished Mutwa women at different life cycle stages, more recently it is produced almost completely for outside markets. This research reports on an apprenticeship with Mutwa embroiderers, an approach that compliments recent anthropological work on embodiment (Jackson, 1983), and has been cited as a suitable means of learning the subtle, often unarticulated aspects of craft production (Coy, 1989). Where earlier accounts of folk embroidery have often seen it as tradition bound and without history, by virtue of these mtimate insights, I argue for embroidery as a creative medium women uniquely employ to negotiate change. Similarly, in contrast to early accounts that perceive change, particularly the introduction of new markets, as detrimental to traditional art forms (Graburn, 1976) and women's authority over them (Dhamija, 1989), I demonstrate how Mutwa women's relationship with embroidery has shifted yet introduced new opportunities for enhancing status. I show how Mutwa women are re-inventing embroidery and the meanings associated with them (Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1983) according to an evolving sense" of Mutwa identity and Islamization. This research documents the recent history of change from Mutwa women's point of view. Although Hindu women are well represented ethnographically in India, accounts of Muslim women remain rare—accounts of creative Muslim women subjects even more so. In keeping with contemporary anthropological and feminist research, this work seeks not to recover Mutwa women as subjects, but to examine how they are subjects, differently constituted, and engaging change on their own terms (Rosaldo, 1980; Abu Lughod, 1991; N. Kumar, 1994).

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