Amina Yabis is a grassroots feminist button maker. She went from being a Moroccan housewife to founding and leading an organization helping thousands of women and girls to gain education and a voice through traditional Moroccan textile crafts. ClothRoads first interviewed and wrote about Amina in 2012. We had the opportunity to learn more about Amina Yabis in Susan Schaefer Davis’s newly released book, “Women Artisans of Morocco: Their Stories, Their Lives,” published by Thrums Books. What follows are portions of the interview and gleanings from the book.
When Amina Yabis moved to Sefrou, Morocco, she was a typical Moroccan mother of four young boys, married to a schoolteacher who earned a steady yet meager income. In order to contribute to the family’s income, she learned to make the hand-knotted buttons used on traditional clothing. Amina recalls, “Every day I got up at 5:00 in the morning, made bread and cooked the meals by 8:00 a.m., and worked on buttons until 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. I did it to educate my sons…” Now, many years later, the boys are young men, three of whom are married with families, and she contributes about 25% to her family’s income.
It was through the early years of button making and understanding the pricing system, that Amina knew she needed to change the system for all the women who made buttons. In the early years of marriage, her husband, Si Mohammed, was a member of the Moroccan human rights organization. He told her, “We work on women’s rights, we defend women’s rights, but not one woman comes to our meetings…The wife needs to be there too.” So Amina started to attend meetings a little at a time and she was a quick learner.
In 1994, Amina’s first step was to become the first woman in her town to run for city council. Though Moroccan women have had the right to vote and stand for elections since 1963, few do so, particularly in small rural towns and communities. She said, “I didn’t do that to win and get a job. No I did that to show that a woman has the right to run in elections. She, too, can defend people’s rights, and she, too, has the right to stand for election, not just vote.”
Realizing that she did not have the necessary economic resources to gain political influence, and that for women to participate in public life outside of the home they needed access to the cash economy and the economic life of their community, she turned to familiar skills. Most of the women in the province of Sefrou earned money making hand-knotted buttons. Early Jewish residents of Sefrou had introduced this craft long before the more famous city of Fez was founded, and the region around Sefrou provided the traditional buttons for all of Morocco and exported them to other Islamic countries. Merchants controlled the trade, however, keeping most of the profits from the labor of the housebound Muslim women.
Amina began to organize women in her community so that they could take control of their own product. After much discussion and investigation, she found that she could gain government recognition for a women’s artisan association if she could negotiate the paperwork. She was fully literate but needed help with the complicated paperwork. With fortuitous timing, the United States Peace Corps had just started a new Small Business Development project in Sefrou and was sending volunteers to help Sefrou artisans with their business needs. Amina asked one of them to help her form a women’s craft association, and Golden Buttons was on its way.
Under Amina’s leadership, Golden Buttons began a literacy campaign in which 180 girls and young women were taught to read and write standard Arabic (Moroccan Arabic, called Derija, is not a written language and is substantially different from standard Arabic). The project continued for five years, when women’s rights to universal education were fully established by the new King.
The Cherry Button Cooperative
Successful as it was, Golden Buttons was by law a nonprofit organization; to fulfill her mission, Amina needed to help the women of Sefrou earn money. Artisan cooperatives were allowed to make a profit, but had always been formed and controlled by men. Amina decided to break tradition again, and founded the Sefrou Women’s Silk Button Cooperative in July of 2000, locally know as the Cherry Button Cooperative, as cherries are the town’s symbol and the style of buttons made there.
As the nonprofit/cooperative model began to succeed, Amina expanded the cooperative’s scope, adding products embellished with handmade buttons and marketing them beyond the tailors and middlemen who bought wholesale buttons. The women artisans began to sell scarves, pillows, slippers, handbags, and other items decorated with buttons. Members of the cooperative began selling products at craft fairs, traveling and doing business on their own for the first time, and eventually representing Morocco at overseas craft events in France, Spain, Italy, and the prestigious Santa Fe Folk Art Market.
There are now forty-two women in the Cherry Button Cooperative. All members of the coop, and also nonmembers who help fill orders, are paid the same amount for the buttons they make. And they all make a profit.
In the years since Amina cast aside her traditional role as a Moroccan housewife, she has worked tirelessly for the good of the women of her region and nation. In 2006, Amina was honored for her efforts with a nomination for Khamisa as an outstanding businesswoman.
Buttons Are Links
Like the designs in rugs, buttons are named after objects they are thought to resemble—the bstilla button, modeled after a sweet and savory dish, is both round and flat with elaborate stitching that vaguely looks like pastry crust; the boushniqa resembles the dried flower of Queen Anne’s Lace, the shems which means sun, and Amina’s favorite one to make, the semma, the traditional one learned from the Jews. You can see the intensive making of just one button in this video clip.
Author Susan Schaefer Davis tells the stories of twenty-five women who practice these textile traditions, focusing on the artisans who, through textiles, contribute substantially to their family’s income while maintaining a household and raising children. Joe Coca’s award-winning photography captures the beauty of the women, their work, and Morocco. Cloth Roads is proud to sell the book Women Artisans of Morocco and the Cherry Buttons Cooperative handmade buttons, all in support of the women and girls of Morocco.
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