Sunday, September 2, 2012

Kamila Tyabji: Passion WIT charisma

In the late 1940s, an Indian woman was making her mark in the courtrooms of London. Kamila Tyabji's Oxford education and crisp saris sought to break the stereotype of Indian women. She was also the first woman to practice in the Privy Council Chamber. However, years of staying in England did not make her lose her affinity to India, where she returned to start the Women's India Trust (WIT) in 1968, leaving behind a successful career in law.
Born on February 14, 1918, Tyabji studied at St Xavier's College, Mumbai, after which she joined St Hugh's College at Oxford to study law. She was granddaughter of Congressman Badruddin Tyabji, who had famously granted bail to Lokmanya Tilak in 1897. Her father, Faiz Tyabji, was a distinguished lawyer and social reformer and made available for his children the best education possible. 

Tyabji took forward her family's tradition of strong and independent women when she did not yield to her parents' wish of having her come back to Mumbai after finishing her studies. Instead, she built a successful practice in London, excelling in insurance cases. Her sojourns to court became the talk of the town and she was credited with having introduced 'brilliant silken saris to the somber monotony of London's law courts'. 

What finally prompted her to quit her charmed social circle of London and come back to India was the famine that hit Bihar in the early 1960s. She decided to join Jayaprakash Narayan and work for grassroots women. 

After studying the law, politics could definitely have been her calling. After all, Tyabji had sailed on the same ship as Indira Gandhi for Oxford, and she had a family background in politics – even her mother, Salima was a member of the Bombay Legislative Assembly in 1937. Yet, she consciously chose to stay away from that arena. 
Social activism is how she chose to make a difference. And it is as the founder of the Women's India Trust (WIT) that she is best remembered. With a capital of Rs 10,000 she started WIT, an organisation that did pioneering work from Panvel, a few kilometers away from Mumbai. It began by training marginalised and unskilled women to stitch sari petticoats. The idea was to make them economically independent. 

Today it also runs a nursing home, kindergarten teachers' training classes and other vocational skill enhancing programmes. 

Tyabji's formal training in law meant she also kept up with the burning social issues of her times. The Shah Bano case and the Uniform Civil Code also kept her busy and she did not feel shy about voicing her opinion and concerns. 

So close was she to the subject of women's empowerment that she was chosen to represent India at the United Nations on the status of women. But, for her, these foreign trips were also about scouting for potential markets and consumers for WIT products. In fact, it was her dedication and enthusiasm that propelled WIT products towards foreign markets. 

Today, WIT continues to grow and in its quest to help as many less privileged and unskilled women as possible, it has broadened its activities. Apart from the food processing units, there are departments dedicated to tailoring, screen printing, toy making, and block printing. Keeping in mind the lack of formal education, many girls and women are given professional training so that they can become financially independent in time. 

A whole range of products, from chutneys, jams, marmalades and fresh fruit squashes to greeting cards, gift envelopes, home linen, paper products, toys, mobile covers and wallets are made by these women and exported to countries such as Spain, Germany, the UK and Australia. WIT's cloth and slipper bags are also used by top hotels across India. 

Tyabji passed away on May 17, 2004, but just as her saris had made heads turn in London, WIT products, in their own way, have also carved a niche in today's competitive market.

(This article was originally done for Women's Feature Service and published in The Hindu) 

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