Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Al Nahda and The Art of Heritage: Empowering Women

It doesn't take long when you arrive in Riyadh, before you are totally over malls and shopping. However when you start looking around, you soon realise there's not an awful lot else here for women to do, especially in the hot summer months. I wrote earlier about looking for alternatives and visiting the King Abdulaziz Library. It was not exactly what you'd call a roaring success. 

So when I heard about the Art of Heritage Organisation and the Al Nahda Center, I was immediately curious. All I really knew was what was written on a flyer I'd been given some years ago. It described the Centre as "a workshop where disadvantaged Saudi ladies make beautiful handicrafts. This is where the gorgeous Bedouin jewelled bowls and date pots are made." 

That was enough to make me want to know more, so with a group of friends who were also interested, we set about to organise a visit.  

Eleven of us travelled from our compound to Olaya, near Sulaimaniya, where the Art of Heritage Centre is located. S**** who met us, smiled and chatted as she led us into a small conference room where she told us about the organisation and how it works. Al Nahda's the largest and oldest women's charity in Saudi Arabia. For more than fifty years it's worked to better the lot of impoverished Saudi women through training and workshops. Their vision statement of empowerment for women instantly struck a chord. I know that in terms of gender equality, Saudi Arabia has recently been ranked 131 out of 135 countries, so I don't think there's any more important word for women here than empowerment.

The Al Nahda Centre and The Art of Heritage Centre are dual entities. The Art of Heritage Group's objective is to research and preserve Saudi Arabia’s heritage costumes, jewellery, household artifacts and textiles. What I really liked was their mission statement that they’d achieve their commitment to women’s social improvement through training them to produce finely crafted heritage products.

We saw this in action at the Yadawy pottery unit. The women working here were all challenged in some way, but each had been trained to produce fine pottery and traditional gift items. S**** smiled as she told us that instead of being financial burdens to their families because of their disabilities, these young women were now all in the unique position of bringing home earnings to add to the family income. Definitely empowering.

Then we saw the Centre’s collection of heritage gowns. Studying these, we were told, was the first step in creating replica garments that were as close as possible in fabric, design and finish.

Next door women sat sewing, making garments that would later be sold in Art of Heritage shops in some of Riyadh’s most exclusive malls. 

We each purchased something before leaving. Now at home I have a small glazed pot that sits on my sideboard. I like it for the story it tells of the young woman who made it, and the way she has been empowered to rise above her poverty and disability because of the training and unique opportunities she's been given by the Al Nahda staff. 

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