Call for Contributors: Invisible Love

This is Worldtown is looking for contributors to share their work and perspectives!

We are now accepting visual and written works by women of colour artists and storytellers on the theme Invisible Love.

Invisible Love ::

Your mother never said it. Your first crush was the girl you couldn’t tell. The love of your life you couldn’t share with the world. The feeling of being desired but never wholly loved. The ways in which our chosen family cares for us. The way the love we desire is about undoing the patriarchy. The way we feel seen but not always loved. The way we feel love that isn’t always seen.

This is Worldtown celebrates and amplifies women using digital and non-digital means to create beautiful things globally ++ stay relevant to topics of race and representation in North America in politics and pop culture via storytelling that is honest and built on experience.

Send us your writing, poetry, photography and visual work about your own Invisible Love. Submit your ideas to

The selected contributors will be compensated $100 for allowing This is Worldtown to feature their content.

DEADLINE TO SUBMIT: November 10th.

Please note: This is Worldtown reserves the right to edit the final story to align with the values of the organization.

Due to the number of submissions we receive, we only respond to those that we accept. If you send us your work and do not hear back from us, please be patient in our response.

Featured Photo by Mashal Khan.

Unbound: Stories from Behind the Dust Exhibit Launch

Unbound: Stories from Behind the Dust

Toronto Media Arts Centre | 32 Lisgar Street | Toronto, ON

Sept. 27 – Sept. 30, 2018

Opening Reception: Thurs, 27 Sept 2018
Doors Open: 6:00PM
Welcoming Remarks: 6:30PM

In digital spaces and beyond, women of colour are taking charge of creating new representations and documenting personal histories that resonate across diasporic experiences.

On September 27th, This is Worldtown reveals the full work of seven emerging media-makers taking charge in telling new stories about migration, space, healing and love at our group show, Unbound: Stories from Behind the Dust.

The Behind the Dust series is a portal into a world that is curated and created by Women of Colour, showing the possibilities of imagining beyond convention, and “behind the dust” of inflammatory and one-dimensional portrayals of communities under fire. As a collective, the media-makers are Muslim, Indigenous, Black, Women of Colour conveying in-depth visual stories about their communities, celebrating the fullness of experience in all its layers. What does it mean to visiblize these experiences? How are we learning from the past and creating for the future?

Come and celebrate new forms of storytelling, shifting and changing old and tired narratives at Unbound: Stories from Behind the Dust.


Tickets are free and available via Eventbrite.

We are grateful to the Inspirit Foundation and the Olive Tree Foundation for their support of this event.

This event is open to all.

@thisisworldtown #TIWTtalks #BehindtheDust

Get To Know: Lu Asfaha and JL Whitecrow, Winners of CTFF’s Short Film Challenge

In advance of CaribbeanTales Film Festival’s CineFAM: Building Bridges Event, we spoke with Lu Asfaha and JL Whitecrow, winners of this year’s Short Film Challenge whose films Paladin and Dreams Untold will have their world premiere at the festival.

Lu Asfaha is a Toronto storyteller. Her films often explore identity, black love, queerness and how things fall apart. In 2017 she wrote and directed the CBC short documentary Freedom Summer and edited the supernatural thriller Queen of Hearts which premiered at InsideOut 2018. She is currently working on the supernatural comedy web series Debtera and the dark fantasy film Paladin.

JL Whitecrow is an emerging multidisciplinary artist from Seine River First Nation, Treaty #3 and lives in Toronto. Her practice includes writing, filmmaking, visual art, music, comedy, and performance. JL has completed a few short films in the narrative and documentary style.

What is your film about?

Lu Asfaha: Paladin is a beautiful and fierce warrior who shows no fear in the face of danger, representing a means of escape for the young conflicted Sam. As Sam is bombarded with traumatic memories, and unable to run from her life anymore, she faces her greatest villain. Herself.

JL Whitecrow: Dreams Untold is the story of a distressed woman who is urged by an encounter with a sleep paralysis demon to confront her deepest horror. Triggered by an argument with her sister, she turns to sleep only to find the Mare waiting at her bedside. Driven deep into her subconscious and stalked by the Mare, she must choose to save herself or be eaten.

Still from “Paladin”

What inspired you to tell this story?

LA: I’ve been writing and rewriting this story for a few years now and more than anything it’s been a form of catharsis for me. While I wouldn’t call it autobiographical by any means it was very much inspired by my own experiences growing up and learning to accept who I am in a world that was committed to me conforming to what was expected of me. I grew up in a very religious immigrant community and I think that’s something a lot of young people who are socialized as women in these communities can relate to regardless of identity. You grow up being told ‘this is who you are, this is who you’re expected to be’ and the truth is very few people actually fit into that box. So how do you reconcile who you actually are and who the world tells you you’re supposed to be? I don’t think there’s one answer to that question but that’s why I wrote this story.

JL: Dreams and Nightmares. The question of why we dream, and what we can learn from them. Dreams Untold was inspired by a nightmare that I had last summer while travelling in Greece.

The dream came as a premonition of a very bad situation to which I found myself a week later. It warned me to be weary of a person that I thought was a friend. I had rented a small independent theatre as home-base, and it was wild, the bed was positioned on the stage facing an auditorium. I fell asleep while watching the back of the auditorium, and then appeared this black shadow from the far end and it crept along onto the stage.

This shadow creature pursued me through a blue monochromatic world. It wanted my energy.

Generally, a dream shadow creature or demon is usually called a Mare or Mara, and it’s a sleep paralysis demon that drains human beings of their life energy. This nightmare type is a cross-cultural phenomenon, which I find so interesting–only it may be called different things in different areas of the world.

In my dream, my sister saved me from the demon. I thought that was really powerful, because I think we forget that we know love and goodness in our nightmares.

Still from “Dreams Untold”

Can you describe some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

LA: Well it rained on our shoot. We had two shoot nights back to back in July and it rained both days so we had to contend with protecting equipment and keeping continuity while trying to shoot the film. We had to cut our shot list a lot and because of scheduling conflicts weren’t able to do a pick up shoot so I had to work with what we were able to get. I think it came out pretty well considering we hacked and slashed the shot list to the bare necessities. That’s also to the credit of the amazing crew we had on set. Our entire production crew was made up of women of colour, many of whom also identify as queer, and we absolutely killed it. From shooting until the sun came up to doing camera set ups in the rain, these women really went above and beyond and this film wouldn’t be as good as it is if we didn’t have such a dependable and talented crew.

JL: You cannot control the weather or the natural environment. I had originally wanted to shoot the underwater scenes at Cherry Beach, but a few days before the shoot the City of Toronto issued a public health warning of toxic algae in the Lake. We had to relocate to Toronto island where the water quality was a bit better. I remember bringing the Bolex camera and underwater casing from my house to the ferry docks at 7 AM so that we could get shots of the beach. That little guy is heavy.

We shot the underwater scenes with the Bolex and a GoPro on a cold day, and we were in the water for a couple of hours. My AC had blue lips because she was so cold by the end of it! It also took a lot of planning and practicing for the underwater scenes. We had done a couple of tests before the shooting date, and then had to do a pick-up day of the scene in case the film processing didn’t turn out.

What’s the core message that you wanted to convey to your audience through this film?

LA: The film is about your identity being made up of many intersecting parts and how defining moments of your life affect each other. I hope that audiences take away that identity is more complex than the labels we use to describe them and that it takes real work to accept who you are when those identities exist outside of what society deems acceptable.

JL: I’m a bit elusive when it comes to messaging, but because this is a dreamworld that I’ve shared, I would hope that people can connect to the dreaming archetype of the Mare —it’s one that unites cultures. I would also like to encourage people to remember their dreams.

Paladin and Dreams Untold premiere on September 13th as part of CTFF 2018 CineFAM Building Bridges. Tickets can be purchased here.

CaribbeanTales International Film Festival is a registered Canadian charity that creates, markets and distributes educational programs and products intended to promote racial equality in Canada and abroad. Our mandate is to foster and encourage intercultural understanding and citizen participation through the creation and distribution of educational films, videos, theatre as well as new media programs, products and resource materials that reflect the diversity and creativity of Caribbean-Canadian heritage culture.

CineFAM is a Haitian-Creole word meaning ‘films by women’. CTFF is a proud supporter of women of colour creators, highlighting films by international female filmmakers each year.

Co-presented by WIFT-T, Film Fatales, Women in View & This is Worldtown.

Eight Films Directed by Women of Colour Making Their Feature Debut at TIFF

It’s that time of the year! The 43rd Toronto International Film Festival (September 6 to 16) begins this week and 122 of the films selected are directed or co-directed by women, accounting for 36% of this year’s titles.

And in an attempt to shift the gender status quo, TIFF has made a five-year commitment — Share Her Journey — to increase participation, skills, and opportunities for women behind and in front of the camera. Stand up for change with TIFF, ReFrame, TIME’S UP, and #AfterMeToo on the morning of Saturday, September 8 at the Share Her Journey Rally. All who want to see and be part of real change in the film industry are invited to join the crowd on John Street at 10am.

Check out This is Worldtown’s picks of films directed or co-directed by Black, Indigenous and Women of Colour who are making their narrative feature debuts at this year’s #TIFF18.

Still from Firecrackers

FIRECRACKERS (Dir. Jasmin Mozaffari)

Lou and her best friend Chantal plan to get out of their isolated, run-down town and move to a city far, far away. When Chantal’s unstable and possessive ex violates her during a night of partying, the girls decide to exact their revenge on him through a night of vandalism and debauchery. The consequences of their actions are devastating, threatening the girls’ chances of ever leaving. The more Lou fights tooth-and-nail to save her friendship and hold onto her dreams, the more she spins out of control as she begins to realize that freedom will come at a high cost.

Still from The Third Wife

THE THIRD WIFE (Dir. Ash Mayfair)

In 19th century rural Vietnam, 14-year-old May becomes the third wife of wealthy landowner Hung. Soon she learns that she can only gain status by asserting herself as a woman who can give birth to a male child. May’s hope to change her status turns into a real and tantalizing possibility when she falls pregnant. Faced with forbidden love and its devastating consequences, May finally comes to an understanding of the brutal truth: the options available to her are few and far between.

Still from Lionheart

LIONHEART (Dir. Genevieve Nnaji)

Set in Southeast Nigeria, Lionheart tells the story of Adaeze Obiagu, a young woman who becomes saddled with the responsibility of running her ailing father’s business under the suffocating supervision of an intensely crude and eccentric uncle. Her competing business instincts and family obligations become a catalyst for a drastic change not everyone is ready to embrace.

Still from Birds of Passage

BIRDS OF PASSAGE (Dirs. Cristina Gallego, Cira Guerra)

The origins of the Colombian drug trade is explored through eyes of an indigenous Wayuu family that becomes involved in the booming business of selling marijuana to American youth in the 1970s. When greed, passion and honor collide, a fratricidal war breaks out and puts their lives, culture and ancestral traditions at stake.

Still from The Day I Lost My Shadow

THE DAY I LOST MY SHADOW (Dir. Soudade Kaadan)

Syria, 2012. During the coldest winter the country has witnessed, all Sana dreams of is cooking gas to prepare a meal for her son. She takes a day off from her job to search for a gas cylinder and suddenly finds herself stuck in the besieged area. It is then that she discovers that people lose their shadows during the war.

Still from The Crossing


Studying in Hong Kong but living in Shenzhen (the port of Mainland China), Peipei has spent 16 years of her life travelling between these two cities. To realize the dream of seeing snow in Japan with her best friend, Peipei joins a smuggling gang and uses her student identity to smuggle iPhones.

Still from The Chambermaid

THE CHAMBERMAID (Dir. Lila Avilés)

Eve, a young chambermaid at a luxurious Mexico City hotel, confronts the monotony of long workdays with quiet examinations of forgotten belongings and budding friendships that nourish her newfound and determined dream for a better life.

Still from Our Body

OUR BODY (Dir. Han Ka-ram)

An overeducated, disenchanted would-be civil servant fixates on another woman she sees as ideal. Curiosity turns into admiration, which then risks evolving into something much worse.

Get to Know: Mariel Brown, Director of “Unfinished Sentences”

In advance of CaribbeanTales Film Festival’s CineFAM: Building Bridges Event,  we chatted with featured filmmaker Mariel Brown about her upcoming film Unfinished Sentences.

Mariel Brown is an award-winning filmmaker and director of the creative and production companies SAVANT and SAVANT Films. Based in Trinidad and Tobago, Mariel has been working in film and television since 1997. She is committed to uncovering and documenting the Caribbean’s rich history and culture, and is especially interested in exploring the lives of its often-unheralded artists and writers. Mariel is in post-production on the documentary, Unfinished Sentences, a personal exploration of her tumultuous relationship with her late father, writer Wayne Brown.

What are some of the things that inspired you to tell the stories that you do?

The Caribbean is very much my inspiration. The people, the lives, the place, the landscape, the history. All of my work has been set in the Caribbean. I see myself as a Caribbean filmmaker and there’s such a dearth of stories coming from the English-speaking Caribbean about our lives and our history. I am driven to tell stories that help us understand ourselves as a people and as a region. To me, the most important thing is to try and be as truthful as possible. Those stories don’t always have to be happy stories. And I feel we desperately need to have these rounded stories that show our humanity and the good and the bad. How do we honour ourselves otherwise?

Still from Unfinished Sentences

What pushed you to create Unfinished Sentences?

When I was raising money for the film in Trinidad, one of the reactions I often got was “Oh, but it’s just a film about you and your dad.” All stories are ultimately just a film about somebody and his/her relationship to someone else, or to a moment. I had to point out that there weren’t many stories about a person like my father – a Black, upper-middle class man from Trinidad during the 20th century; when Black, upper-middle class families weren’t very many. To tell a story that had real resonance required that I explore history to some extent. To explore his own family, what context he grew up in looked like. I think Caribbean people are burdened by legacies. We’re burdened by the legacy of slavery and the legacy of colonialism. I think it’s irresponsible to shy away from those things, and it’s also slightly dishonest. We are where we are today because of these things. And they’re not incidental to how we have survived as a society.

In telling my dad’s story, I wanted to be able to look at my grandfather and my grandmother who I never met, and try to unpack why daddy’s relationship with his father was so complicated, and so unlike my own relationship with him. I really wanted to try to understand what it must have felt like to be daddy growing up within his family, the only descendant of all his aunts/uncles, the darkest skinned descendant, the golden child.

Still from Unfinished Sentences

Can you talk about your decision to include your personal journey in the film?

Unfinished Sentences started as more of a biographical film. I felt that my father’s contributions as a writer were important and it needed to be documented properly. The story kept pulling me to enter, and I really didn’t want to. I fought against it for years, because I was frightened. The more I delved into writing it, the more I was guided to include myself. There were different questions I found myself needing to answer. I realized the story I wanted to unearth was how our relationship went from something where I absolutely idolized him to when our relationship became incredibly difficult. I started the project in 2010. By 2014, I was allowing myself to think of my own role in the film. It increasingly became the direction the film would take. But it was definitely not how I had envisioned it and also it meant that it was a much more painful process to go through. I couldn’t stand back and be objective. I had to bring the intimacy of our relationship into the story.

When I realized the direction had changed, I very quickly made the decision to hire a script consultant, Fernanda Rossi, because I knew it was too close and I was still very emotional. It was incredibly helpful just to have somebody steer you through the minefield of your own personal life. It’s the first time I ever explored in film such a personal subject, and it’s been an incredibly rewarding process.

Mariel at age 11. Still from Unfinished Sentences

Can you describe how you used different visual storytelling methods (re-enactments, family archive photos, natural landscapes) to tell this story?

I had seen Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley while I was working on the film. She was unabashed in her use of reenactment, combining it with her own family’s archive. I just realized as soon as the super 8 footage came on, I was there with her. And I thought, maybe there’s a way I can do the reenactments.  It inspired me and it was helpful because it helped to build the visual landscape of my film. As a documentary filmmaker, I’m not working with actors on a regular basis except to do voiceover and narration. I loved working with the actors, makeup artist and costume designer and going out on location and doing props and sets.

Director Mariel Brown shoots super 8 footage

There were two threads to the reenactments. One was the super 8 footage which was meant to look like anyone could have shot it. But then there was the more artful filming of Wayne at the typewriter, which we shot in high definition. I enjoyed working on that because it involved lighting on set and props. But I had a very clear idea that I wanted that to feel properly observed, because this was him engaging in his craft. So while the super 8 footage was intended to feel like a little girl could have had the camera and shot it, I wanted this to look like people who knew what they were doing had done it. I treated it with black and white filters because I wanted it to feel like history but I also wanted it to look really well done. It was a way of honouring the writing process, and the importance of writing in the film.

Still from Unfinished Sentences

The third visual thread that really came in was just what I call evocative b-roll. We traveled all over Trinidad at different times of day. This was with another director of photography, Nadia Huggins, a brilliant photographer who has this eye for capturing nature and water in particular in a spectacular way. We did all the underwater stuff together, over quite a long period of time. All of those three threads came together. I am a Cancerian, my father was a Cancerian, so I knew water would be very important. Also because we’re in the Caribbean, we’re on an island, sailing, going to beach, swimming, these were things that were absolutely core to my relationship with my father. My sister and I, that’s how we spent time with him. And also, when I looked at his poetry, so much of it is set in a landscape, the Caribbean landscape of water and sea. So I just made the decision to keep water as a visual thread throughout the film, for all of those reasons.

Still from Unfinished Sentences

What’s the core message that you wanted to convey to your audience through this film?

It certainly is about love and family and grief and the staying power of love. I think it’s very important in this film. Especially today, people think, “oh you’ve hurt me, so that’s the end, I will never recover.” Daddy believed that to live is to experience pain, and it doesn’t need to defeat you but you have to live in honour of this. At one point, I was going through a really rough period, and daddy said to me in a letter, “you have to take it day by day, and you earn your passage through this sometimes vale of tears.” I hope that’s what I’m communicating in the film. This idea that life is to be lived and you can’t run away from these things. It’s in the living and engaging and the feeling and the loving that you earn your life.

Still from Unfinished Sentences

Can you talk about the importance of reclaiming narratives about the Caribbean?

Our lived experience is what it is. It’s a real life lived experience. But when the first world or global north looks on at the Caribbean, it’s this kind of horrendously flat and inadequate picture of our region. It’s either palm trees and beaches and tourists and suntan lotion or Usain Bolt or it’s crime and violence. There’s so much more. These gaping holes exist, and so we have this kind of schizophrenia in ourselves because so little audio/visual media is actually created in the Caribbean. The view of ourselves that is constantly being presented to traditional television and cinema, is one in which your life is completely denied. The reality of your life is completely denied, and non-existent. Nuanced stories don’t exactly come with five word taglines. Going back to this idea of why I do what I do, it’s because I want to tell a more varied and layered story of the Caribbean experience. It just does not exist in the way that it should. And within that, we have no choice but to deal with the thorny issues – slavery and colonialism. We must; I feel there is a responsibility to do that.

Unfinished Sentences screens on September 13th as part of CTFF 2018 CineFAM Building Bridges. Tickets can be purchased here.

CaribbeanTales International Film Festival is a registered Canadian charity that creates, markets and distributes educational programs and products intended to promote racial equality in Canada and abroad.

Our mandate is to foster and encourage intercultural understanding and citizen participation through the creation and distribution of educational films, videos, theatre as well as new media programs, products and resource materials that reflect the diversity and creativity of Caribbean-Canadian heritage culture.

CineFAM is a Haitian-Creole word meaning ‘films by women’. CTFF is a proud supporter of women of colour creators, highlighting films by international female filmmakers each year.

Co-presented by WIFT-T, Film Fatales, Women in View & This is Worldtown.

Hersarong: A Story of Labour and Legacy

By Shazlin Rahman

Over the next few months, we will be featuring the projects from our Behind the Dust Visual Series Mediamakers. Hersarong by Shazlin Rahman is the first in the series.

This is my maternal grandmother; I call her Mok. In this photo she is preparing a dish—the one called seri muka, I thinksurrounded by my cousins and me, keenly observing. In other photos Mok can be seen holding one of my cousins when they were babies, bouncing my little brother on her knees, tending to the yard while my cousins and I played behind her, serving up some food or posing for a photo on Eid while we sat cross-legged obediently around her. More often than not, the faded sepia and yellowed Kodak prints usually show Mok tending to our surrounded by one or more of her grandchildren.

Mok surrounded by my cousins and I (front, second from the left). Photo courtesy of my aunty Hasiah Kadir.

For the last few months, I’ve been carefully digitizing old photos of Mok. These images  show, in my mind, the strength and resilience with which Mok navigated her life—as a young girl in British-ruled Malay peninsular, as a teenager during the brutal WW2 Japanese occupation, as a young mother in newly-independent Malaya and, up until her death, as a grandmother to a predominantly female brood of grandchildren. I needed to preserve her legacy for posterity and to remind myself of what strength, beauty and resilience looked like for Malay women like my grandmother and me.

When I google women’s labour, the top three search results were the 1940s “Rosie the Riveter” poster, black-and-white images of predominantly white women working on assembly lines or marching with protest signs or white women who had just been in labour.

The Westinghouse Company’s “Rosie the Riveter” poster created by J. Howard Miller in 1942.

I find these images deeply unrelatable because, at the surface they depict mostly white women. They are also primarily framed from the feminist perspectives of the global West with women courageously demanding equal rights or taking their rightful place in the labour force. I feel the same way about images of women on the front covers of magazines and news spreads.

While these images are powerful and reflect, to some degree, increasing rights for a certain segment of the female workforce, they are not images that resonate with me as an immigrant Muslim woman of colour. This is why I’m driven to explore what labour looks like for women like my grandmother. I found them in my grandmother’s legacy and in present-day women batik-makers in East Coast Malaysia.

Unsurprisingly, a different image of labour emerged.

Mok’s was a quiet kind of strength, less muscle-flexing like Rosie the Riveter and more like gentle strokes on a child’s head. Her labour is imbued with beauty, most evident in her work making batik sarongs, a work-from-home cottage industry still in practice in east coast Malaysia today. Mok never marched in the streets—at least, not to my knowledge—but she did tread a well-worn path between her house and the local batik manufacturer’s workshop, carrying heavy bundles of fabric printed with wax batik motifs.

My mother’s hands holding one of Mok’s old sarongs. Photo by Shazlin Rahman

Mok would walk across Sultanah Zainab Road to the batik factory owned by Haji Wan Abdullah (Aji Wé Doloh in Kelantanese) near her mother’s house and next to a tributary of the Kelantan river. She would come home with one kodi—a bundle containing 20 pieces of fabric printed with motifs in wax—carefully balanced on her head. The weight of each of those cloths and all the wax would bear down on her head, her neck and down her spine.

Mok would never send her daughters to the factory; most of the workers were men and the girls wouldn’t be able to stand up to their teasing. Instead, they would help out at home, colouring in the shapes of curling leaves, creeping vines, blooming frangipani and roses, and stylized peacocks and roosters. The pre-mixed fabric dyes supplied by the factory came in little jars and the colour palette was limited, but the three girls’ creativity was limitless. Mok would sometimes help with the more intricate techniques, like shading in the creases of a flower petal or the deep crevices of a bud. One piece of properly coloured batik earned the family ten cents Malaysian. Sometimes there’s a break in the wax outlines and the colours would bleed, ruining the fabric. There are several tricks to correct that, mama told me, and sometimes Haji Wan Abdullah would excuse it since it wasn’t the girls’ fault. Sometimes the fabric wasn’t useable, and he would have no choice but to deduct a few cents from their pay.

It sounds like a negligible amount today, but Mok and her three daughters—of which my mother is the youngest—were so industrious that they managed to make surplus income and broke the family’s generations-long cycle of poverty.

The batik sarong is one of the most common pieces of clothing for Malay women and can be found in different variations all across the Malay archipelago. A typical sarong measures between 100-110 centimetres wide, 180–220 centimetres long and is sewn together at both ends into a tube. Batik sarongs are commonly worn as a bottom for both everyday wear and special occasions.

Mok (left) and my paternal grandmother whom I call Nani, dressed in an identical ensemble of batik sarongs and traditional kebaya blouses on my parents’ wedding day.

This type of individually-made batik sarongs are difficult to find today. The ones I found in the markets of Kota Bharu were made cheaply in factories, mass produced in big quantities and sold by the bolt to retailers. The more profitable hand-drawn batik, or batik tulis, are now more popular. It can be made quickly and customized according to trends in colours, varying qualities of fabric, and a variety of motifs. Nevertheless, I found many things haven’t changed about women’s labour in the batik industry.

Gendered division of labour in the industry: men draw and women colour, just as they did during Mok’s time in the ’50s and ’60s. The same was the case at Zainab Hassan’s workshop, which seems to grow out of either sides of her house located along the touristy Pantai Cahaya Bulan road in Kelantan. To the left of her house was an area where Akmal, a quiet young man of 21 was quietly drawing batik motifs in wax on yards of plain white cloth.  To the right was the colouring area where Juliza (30), Ruhaya (34), and Suzana (39), were busy colouring their own pieces of batik, each stretched taut over wooden frames. Each piece measured approximately 10 feet long and 4 feet wide. At Zainab’s workshop, the women are paid RM6 (about $2CAD) for each completed piece, which retails at about RM100 or more. I was told that there are women who work in drawing batik motifs, but they tend to be the the exception rather than the norm. Women also work in selling, tailoring and embellishing batik fabrics.

Ruhaya, 34, colouring a piece of batik at Zainab Hassan’s workshop on Pantai Cahaya Bulan Road in Kota Bharu, Kelantan, Malaysia. Photo by Asad Chishti.

The arrangement of labour within the industry is largely informal. There are larger, more prominent batik companies whose employees are on a regular payroll. Nevertheless, there is also a cottage industry of small batik workshops across east coast Malaysia offering less stable and informal employment arrangements.

Most of the workshops I visited employed women who easily leave work to attend to affairs at home and come back without disrupting their work. Juliza lives right next to Zainab’s workshop and her children go to a local primary school just up the street. Suzana’s four-year-old Nurzawanah kept herself busy playing while her mother’s hand moved deftly back and forth between her paint jar and the fabric she was colouring. Zainab also helps some of her workers work from home (as Mok did) when they’re unable to be at her workshop. At Mohammad Nawawi Mat Arifin’s workshop Nur BB Batik—where all the colourists were women—seventeen-year-old Nur Farisa Mohamad Ghani left on a small motorbike to fetch her siblings from school in the middle of working on her piece. Siti Kasim, 41, has been working as a batik colourist for several years at several different workshops, indicating the entry and exit from the workforce to be quite fluid.

Nurul Asma Zakaria, 22, working at Nur BB Batik in Kota Bharu, Kelantan, Malaysia. Photo by Asad Chishti.

On the flip side of this flexibility is the absence of the usual benefits afforded by formal employment. Although the relationship amongst the women batik makers and workshop owners were collegial and relaxed, it’s hard to imagine any of the women I interviewed receiving healthcare benefits, childcare support or paid time off. This is most critical during the monsoon season when east coast Malaysia is besieged with heavy rains and flooding, which slows the traffic of tourists down to a trickle and hampers batik production.

Without infrastructure like indoor drying rooms with temperature control, these informal workshops remain dependent on the day’s weather, even when the monsoon seasons are over. This is why most batik colouring work starts in the morning. By late afternoon, most workshops will be winding down and the beautifully coloured fabrics are on outdoor clotheslines and drying racks, making the most of the day’s sunlight. Zainab told me that a hot, sunny day is the ideal condition for completing batik pieces; an overcast day can still get the dyed fabrics to dry, but work stops altogether on rainy days.

When I first arrived at Zainab’s workshop early in the morning, Juliza, Suzana and Ruhaya were sitting around a small coffee table at the corner of the workshop; I was worried that they might close that day but they told me that they were waiting to see if it will be hot and sunny enough to work. When I returned about an hour later, each woman was busy colouring their own piece of fabric.

Completed batik pieces which had been soaked overnight in a silicate bath are put up to dry in the sun. Photo by Asad Chishti.

I wasn’t surprised to find Hasmah Ismail’s workshop to be quiet and empty by the time I arrived at around two o’clock in the afternoon. She had around 40 completed batik pieces—with motifs drawn by her brother Ramli Ismail—drying on wires and racks around her workshop. Right next to it was her house, originally built by her grandparents, on four-foot-high stilts. Hasmah recalled one monsoon season when the entire village was flooded and she had to do her batik work in waist-high flood waters.

Hasmah Ismail, 60, at her workshop in Kota Bharu. Photo by Asad Chishti.

I shudder at the thought of what could be in the murky flood waters while Hasmah worked on her batik pieces. Given the small remuneration women batik makers generally receive for their intricate work, I was even more impressed by her dedication to the work.  Although batik is one of the state of Kelantan and Malaysia’s most popular cultural export, this is not reflected in the women’s working conditions.

I grew up hearing about Malay women described as gentle, demure and unassuming. To a large degree I still see that reflected in my grandmother’s legacy and in the women batik makers I met, but that’s just one part of the story. Mok’s work colouring batik from home while teaching her three daughters to do the same was what helped the family break their cycle of poverty. In much the same way, in many small batik workshops in Kelantan, the gentle swoosh of the paintbrush on stretched silk and little taps of brush handles against cans of fabric dyes is what’s keeping Malaysia’s batik industry alive.

These women’s labour is gentle, quietly resilient and intricately woven with beauty.

This is what labour looks like for women like me.

Shazlin Rahman is a Malaysian-born, Toronto-based freelance writer and artist. She has six years of architectural education from Malaysia and Australia, a degree in Journalism from Wilfrid Laurier University and M.A. in Communication and Culture from the interdisciplinary joint program at Ryerson/York. Shazlin uses photography, abstract art and creative nonfiction to engage her audience in conversations about the resilience of women of colour.