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Meet Madhu & The Saheli Women

Written by Megan Hudson - 26th December, 2022

In exploring our relationship with the world, remembering the stories of the feminine in re-enchanting this same relationship, we lean into the wisdom and energy of Zazi’s very first artisan family, Saheli Women.


Over the years, we have listened deeply to the stories of the powerful ‘women of the desert’, nestled in the Rhajastani desert in the small village of Bhikamkor. This remote village is at the heart of change, making waves throughout the world, a center where the feminine is omnipresent. Holding space to inspire its unfolding across the local community as well as the Western world. Where partner organisations and their communities connect with the intentions and love sewn into each stitch, beckoning us to lean into the often silent prayers of the sacred to become woven into the everyday once more. Saheli Women transcend ideas of sustainability and business models, to touch the core of feminine empowerment, to interweave the Feminine, Celebration and Creativity into their voices and being.

What started as a small project with 5 women learning to embroider and a budget of 127$ has turned into a global sisterhood, supporting the livelihoods of over 80 women and their families. Meaning female friend, the Saheli women push today’s conscious fashion landscape further. Inspiring more depth of what sustainability looks like, towards a true sisterhood of empowerment, reweaving the narrative of what fashion can be, to decentralise the idea of ‘labour’ into a craft filled with dignity, reciprocity and intentionality. Highlighting the power of cloth and women, they are paving not only a way forward for an entire industry, but also our personal ways of engaging with cloth and story. 


“Sustainability is a concept of the Western mind,” says Madhu Ji. For the Saheli women it is a way of life that needs no such word, it is in their culture and their beautiful gift to the world. “ Learning should also go hand in hand with exchange,” she shares, “I feel its something that we should share (...) they learn from us and we learn from them.” The Saheli have much to teach us through their approach of living in harmony with the earth, as well as from the beauty of their culture and creativity.

The shared vision of the future of fashion between Zazi and Madhu was present from the start of their connection. Beginning with a dress drawn on a paper napkin over chai, it has become a sister partnership touching hearts worldwide. The tone of their first love letter to the world featured in Vogue, visually told the story of the model wearing the very first dress sitting on the working floor of the center, surrounded by its makers - setting the tone for the future of fashion.

The feminine informs a way of stepping into creativity through co-creation. Co-creation is at the center of how this collective works, recognising the process and value of all hearts and minds in the process of a creation, valuing equally the knowledge, skill and craft of all involved across the value chain. Co-creation inspires not only partners across the chain, but also the way of women at the center are in relationship with one another. ”We have a very democratic organisation; everything is decided internally by the ladies.They decide how much they should be paid, how many hours they would like to work and when to take their holidays. That’s why I don’t see the ladies as labour; we are more than that; we are an artisan community who make the dream true for a lot of brands.”


Speaking on the need to address which stories are told and how impact is talked about, Madhu says we need to move in the quality of something to reflect the wholeness of the person making the beautiful clothing. “When I am saying qualitative, I am saying we should explore more. Explore what are the lifestyles the ladies live, how many holidays they take, do they have time for families and to sit together, have they celebrated the festivals?” The qualitative is where the feminine is able to be perceived, where the lived reality of women can be recognised, valued and can thrive.

“We are not just labour. I just refuse the word labor and labor rights... It's not a labour job, it is artisan job and we really need to change the tone. (...) Because around the world people get inspired by our culture, our colors & our art skills” Madhu points out how ‘labour’ work is part of a narrative where the creativity and power of makers is not recognised, decentralising the value chain from the gaze of the brand and designers towards the actual crafters; those whose talent and skills bring a creation to life. This philosophy is engrained throughout, including how they organise their own creative power. Madhu takes the opposite approach of the large garment factories in which a person does one small task over and over again. She believes that when a woman makes an entire garment, from start to finish, arranging the patterns of the textiles according to her creativity, she can take pride in what she has created. “It boosts their confidence and gives them pride in seeing what they can create with their creativity and their skills.”

“If you want to change the world, you should empower the women around the world. If one woman is happy it effects so many families. If a woman is empowered, the family is empowered and as a result, the community and the whole nation is empowered. If we want to provide a better future to our children, we have to empower their mothers”.

- Madhu Vaishnav, Saheli Women founder -

“I always say we are not about the garment, the garment is a tool for female empowerment, for financial empowerment, for everyday to earn money.”Fashion is a vehicle to catalyse change,it is a chain connecting women across the world to something more sacred, something universal and something based on the power of connection. The full expression of  creativity is a way that allows for the ladies to step into their own power, forming collectives that feed a sense of belonging, confidence and pride in what they are doing, catalysing long-lasting change across generations.


Madhu explains to us how creativity, women and local village economies are interconnected. The lived realities of rural women needing to be reflected in how social enterprises work. “A woman is not one thing. When she is working, she is a mother, an artisan and a carer for the home. When she comes to work she carries a lot of work with her, worrying about the children at home. So we created a place, not only for the ladies but for the families, where the children can come when the mothers are working, where they can play, do their homework and jump. There is always an open area for children to play and this makes Saheli Women very unique. One of the most amazing things that we develop is the social support for each other. And we don't see motherhood as a weakness for a woman to grow financially, so many times we hear the ladies speaking about their worries of having children and a professional life as well, but Saheli Women is a place where there is so much support.  We have seen little toddlers grow. They come to the center and play with their mothers. There is a place for them to nap, they sleep on the mat. One of the ladies said she wasn't scared to have a fifth child; she said ‘I will bring my two months old baby and put the space with a little cot,’ and he got so many cuddles, so the child is growing in so many hands and it’s such a healthy and happy child.”


Madhu tells the story of one of the ladies’ sons coming into the center, watching their young mothers learn to weave as part of the new weaving initiative, and aspiring to become a weaver himself; or mothers defying cultural norms to marry their teenage daughters. Instead sending her daughter to university to study fashion. “I think we are building a very safe and amazing place for all the families and our children; by providing them with such a unique place where they can see this tool of fashion for themselves to become financially empowered in the future.”

Female empowerment is wholly interconnected and intertwined because of women’s central role within the village and community. “It’s all about the village economy. We need to build a village economy if we want the village to become empowered, if we want to stop the migration to the cities, if we don't want amazing artisans to go to the labour jobs, then we have to create a clean, safe village economy. And this is why time to time we run beautiful skills development program.” Reviving the textile crafts of the lands, which was part of every village life before industrialisation and colonisation, Saheli Women is developing a beautiful new weaving initiative. Madhu shares her beautiful wisdom on the philosophy of weaving and its connection to a whole community. “This handloom project we set up is very complex, like every thread is so important. In Hindi we call the thread XXX It means clumping the thread together and every thread is equally important, no thread should be weak. This connects also to the philosophy of the society, that every person in the society is very important and no one should be left behind and that’s the beauty of it.” 


“We try to support each other and provide equal opportunity for each other. Once we have these opportunities for ourselves, we want to bring in other women". 

- Komal -

“One day I decided not to go to work because I heard there was a community meeting at the Saheli Women’s centre and I wanted to take part. I was not aware that soon my life was going to change forever. I participated in the meeting with full enthusiasm and spoke of all the social problems women and girls faced in the village. The meeting ended and I went home. But Madhu, who founded the centre, really liked the way I spoke. I was informed there was a job opportunity for me. I was shocked, who would give a job to an illiterate person. But Madhu believed I would be very good at public speaking and at inspiring women…”

- Bharti -

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