Faces of women concentrating intently on their work. This is what strikes the visitor who enters the main room of Dorothy, a community café located in the Parisian district of Ménilmontant. This is where Tina, Anita, Grace, Coralie, Laetitia, and others meet every Wednesday — a handful of women involved in prostitution who participate in the Bakhita sewing workshop. Mannequins, sewing machines, scissors, sewing thread, pieces of lace, scissors scattered everywhere … It’s like being in Ali Baba’s cave.
This workshop was set up two years ago by the association Freedom for Captives (“Aux captifs, liberation” in French), which works with homeless people as well as with those who make their living through prostitution. At first, the organization sends teams to find the women on the street and establish dialogue with them. In the second stage of the process, the women are invited to participate in some of the association’s activities. “This is called dynamization,” explains Marie-Antoinette Peltier, a professional seamstress, who runs the workshop. “It can be done through singing, art therapy, or a hairdressing workshop …”
For this article, we visit the sewing workshop. Every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., women learn to draw patterns, select fabrics, use the sewing machine, make a hem … Some are French, but most are immigrants, more comfortable speaking in English. At the workshop, the workers try to speak French as much as possible in order to enable the women to become more familiar with the language.
Among these women are many Nigerians, but also others from the Congo, China, and Peru. Many are victims of human trafficking, a modern form of slavery. It is not by chance that the workshop bears the name of St. Josephine Bakhita, a young Sudanese enslaved person who managed to eventually leave her life of exploitation and take control over her life.
Throughout the day, whispers alternate with moments of silence and of laughter. While some are busy sewing, others focus on embroidery. Peltier passes among them to help them and give them advice.
Being demanding is essential
Angela is 30 years old. Her beautiful black hair goes down to her shoulders. Nigerian, she landed in France more than a year ago and has been attending the workshop since 2018. “I make jackets, bags, skirts …” She already practiced sewing in Africa, but here she’s learning new techniques and working with other materials.
Tina, age 23, is the mother of Samuel, a 2-year-old boy. For her, the Bakhita workshop is an essential part of the week. With a sweet, slightly shy smile, she explains that she has been living in France since 2016. In the workshop, she can breathe, and above all, can improve her sewing skills. She does it for herself; it’s an investment of time.
“These are women who have left prostitution, who want to leave, or who are in the process of leaving,” says Peltier. “I see them as women who want to learn sewing. I don’t try to get them to confide in me or tell me about their lives. They have educators and psychologists for that. Here, the goals are clear and it allows me to be demanding with them. I ask them to be on time, reliable, and focused. If they’re twenty minutes late without a serious excuse, I turn them away for the day.” She adds: “When you’re self-employed, your work is good, or it’s not: if it’s done badly, it won’t be sustainable.” That’s why she challenges the women to do their best.
Getting in touch with themselves
Peltier tells me about how the workshop began. “The beginnings were difficult. It took a long time to get the right patterns.” Little by little, the women managed to progress. Today, there are 12 who come regularly. “They need to be demanding with themselves if they are to achieve competence. When they do, they’re very proud of themselves. After eight or nine months of sewing, they don’t ask me if it’s good anymore, but if it’s perfect … with the small smile of pride that goes with knowing you’ve succeeded,” Peltier adds, amused. “They teach themselves how to look critically at their own work, and growing in skills allows them to grow in self-esteem. They recognize their own abilities.”
Sewing has many virtues. “Focusing allows them to relax, because they have violent lives. Sometimes they sing, but they also need to reflect and to be in touch with their interiority,” she continues. Some are transformed in a palpable way, like Grace: “On the first day, she was grumpy and didn’t talk to anyone. When it came to sewing, she turned out to be very persevering. She had little natural talent and wasn’t particularly skilled, and she was well aware of it, but she didn’t get discouraged. Little by little, she was able to make a place for herself in the group, and today, she is able to produce something that makes her happy at the end of the day.”
The group has created its own ready-to-wear brand. The workshop has also organized several fashion shows, including one in Paris last June. The women were able to present their work and walk the runway. Such an activity isn’t trivial for people who’ve been earning money with their bodies. Here, they are no longer instrumentalized or abused; they are valued and praised, and recognized as bearers of beauty.
That is what Grace experienced: “During the runway, she was in the spotlight, radiant. People didn’t recognize her,” Peltier testifies. Some essential things play out beyond the work environment, allowing these women who have had a difficult path in life to overcome the hard knocks of life. “I see a group that is taking shape, with real friendships. All have found their place, even Blessing, a transsexual who arrived with serious physical problems.”
At 5 p.m., the workshop draws to a close. After tidying up, the women go off chatting happily, content with the work they’ve done, one step closer to a brighter future.
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