How a unique Ramadan initiative is raising funds for artists in war-torn areas

Social entrepreneur Tasneem Nawab on creating wearable art through a special collection, which seeks to raise money for families of artists in war-affected areas


Somya Mehta

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Published: Thu 24 Mar 2022, 6:21 PM

Last updated: Fri 25 Mar 2022, 8:04 AM

As we step into the Holy Month of Ramadan, a period of introspection and giving back to the society we’re often trained to only take from, we’re reminded, once again, to shift the focus from ourselves and open our eyes to the world around us — crumbling in some places, while thriving in others. The dual reality of life as we know it today, of celebrations amidst sorrow, continues to take its course, while a recurrent question pricks at our heart — to check itself for indifference within a discourse flooded with ‘empathy’. The answer to the question ultimately arrives from finding peace within ourselves, knowing — never mind big or small — we’ve done our bit.

“In the end, you have an ethical obligation to yourself. You want to go to bed knowing that you’ve made a difference and even if you don’t wake up the next morning, at least you know you’ve done your bit,” believes Tasneem Nawab, 30, who runs her own social enterprise, Zaish, producing wearable art through denim jackets.

This Ramadan, Tasneem, along with the founder of Arte Bazaar, Sarah Gothard, has created a special initiative called the ‘Touch of Love’ campaign with an aim to give back to the artists’ society. “Many of the artworks, driven by changed perceptions of the post-pandemic world, have enabled artists to express love in terms of family, friends, the environment and self,” says Tasneem.

The campaign will kick off with a 100 per cent-for-charity auction for a denim abaya/cape, co-created by all the artists, raising money for families of artists in war-affected areas. “Our criteria in choosing a charity house to partner with was charities that worked most closely with war zones and victims/refugees,” says Tasneem, adding that in addition to the 100 per cent charity auction, 10 per cent of the profits from the sale of the rest of the collection will also go towards charity.

“When you’re hungry and thirsty, you’re made to realise there are people in the world who go through this harsh reality for a much longer duration. Religious scholars often raise this question that can we fast if we don’t have anything to break our fast with? That is heartbreaking,” she adds. The campaign will continue to run the next few months as a ‘showcase on wheels’ where people will get a chance to purchase the pieces at different sites around the UAE.

Running her own clothing start-up, Tasneem is a lawyer by profession “who’s now selling denim jackets”. Graduating in 2016, from a university in the UK, Tasneem adds, “It was very hard to land a job in the law industry without having any prior experience. I literally did everything under the sun, all of which led me to eventually start Zaish,” which now creates 100 per cent sustainable, handcrafted denims.

“The idea was to use an evergreen fabric, which would always be in fashion, regardless of generation or season. I’ve always been interested in fashion. My friends and family generally tend to rely on my advice for their clothes and I started off just creating pieces for them. I’ve also been fascinated with art but it never occurred to me that the two could be clubbed together,” says Tasneem, adding that the pandemic gave her the final push to take the plunge and go all out. “It started right in the middle of the pandemic. I just couldn’t make anymore banana bread, I had to do something which had consequences,” she jokes.

Even though a lawyer by profession, giving up her career in the field was never a professional setback for Tasneem. “I think the pandemic gave perspective to the rest of the world and I’m glad it turned out that way because I look a little less crazy now. When I wasn’t able to find a job, of course, there were financial restrictions, which needed to be dealt with but paying your bills should never be your end goal. It should be a means to an end. For me, the end goal was always freedom,” says Tasneem, adding that entrepreneurship has become the ultimate tool of freedom and financial freedom in her life.

Though, her entrepreneurial quest for freedom didn’t come without it’s share of challenges. “Initially, we realised that not a lot of people were buying the pieces because it was turning out to be quite expensive. I was locally producing the pieces as opposed to other retail outlets like Zara or H&M offering the same thing for almost half the price. I thought of switching to trading but then how would we be different from brands like H&M or Levi’s? That’s when I decided to create handcrafted pieces,” says Tasneem, who then positioned Zaish as a slow fashion brand.

Adding that her choice of making the denims 100 per cent sustainable led to increased costs of production, the 30-year-old entrepreneur mentions, “We don’t use any plastic anywhere whatsoever, every single thing is biodegradable, start to finish. The other factor is we work with artists and want to bring them a fair share,” she adds. The price point continued to be a challenge for Zaish, Tasneem mentions. “This was actually one of the biggest challenges for us, so we recently created a new collection, called Rihaa collection, which will be a maximum of Dh300 per jacket. We haven’t launched it yet, it’s still under production,” says Tasneem.

The collection will focus on thrifted wear, made for students, by students. “This is how we’ve managed to bring down the costs. We’re not being unfair to anyone and the costs are only lower because it’s thrifted,” she cites as a way to make slow fashion more accessible to people. “We’re still being sustainable, we’re still being fair and paying the artists. If you go to H&M and Zara and get yourself a denim jacket, you’re not paying anything less than Dh250 to Dh300, which is the maximum retail price we’ve set for this collection,” says Tasneem.

A venture that started out as a meeting point for her passion in fashion and art, led Tasneem to also discover an industry-wide shortcoming in the process. “I started researching artisans who could help us out and I came across some shocking statistics. In India, we have artisans that are being paid between Dh10 and Dh20 for an entire bridal piece, which takes them 60 to 70 hours. This is preposterous because they’re never going to be able to come out of their poverty and they’re the ones who are breaking their backs over the entire outfit,” says Tasneem.

As a proposed solution, through her own clothing brand, she decided to offer better pay to the artisans giving them between Dh20 to Dh30 per piece, which on average takes them between six and seven hours to produce. “The pay almost doubles but the number of hours is very different. So, if they still end up working for 60 to 70 hours for us, per piece, they earn exponentially,” says Tasneem. “By 2024, we plan on actually partnering with educational institutions, hospitals and grocery stores, and other lifestyle institutions, to improve the quality of life for these artisans. Instead of paying them only hard cash, we will be providing them these additional benefits,” she adds.

While it usually takes well-established organisation years, sometimes decades, to pause and think of the social repercussions of their business strategy and decisions, Tasneem has already built a start-up ecosystem that is well aware of both its social and environmental costs. “That’s where the mistake lies. It’s this mindset of making money quickly, which comes at a price. And years later, organisations decide to give back but the damage is already done. So, you cause the damage first and then end up fixing it, which doesn’t make sense,” says Tasneem, adding that the growth needs to be mutual and needs to start right from the beginning. “It’s important to not create the problem in the first place. More and more people are now realising that social enterprises are the way, going forward. To have it in your core value system as an enterprise, rather than just a CSR activity,” the social entrepreneur signs off.

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