Last week I had the great privilege of experiencing first-hand what things may happen when the sisterhood works. The Fundraisers, a group of women dedicated to raising money for charity, host an event each year called the Bargain Basement Sale (BBS). All kinds of businesses—from cupcake bakers to couture makers, bedlinen to blow-dries—donate goods or services to the sale, and everything gets sold at fifty per cent of its original retail price. The result? Shoppers go nuts for the bargain of the century, and money floods in for the charities earmarked by the Fundraisers that year.
The BBS had the humble and slightly quirky start that many successful ventures tend to have. After the massive earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, founders Mahin Hasib and Nuria Rafique-Iqbal combined forces and had their first sale in November that year—in a basement! It was a success, and subsequently the sale began happening annually, and always in November. The BBS has only gone from strength to strength in the years to follow, with brands and labels that donate increasing each year and its volunteer family growing in numbers.
There is a particular kind of energy when like-minded people come together to support a cause. The Bargain Basement Sale is not just your average group of ladies (and a handful of men) who put together some cute little meena bazaar; it’s a gigantic culmination of incredible scheduling, organisation and meticulous record-keeping. Everything is purely voluntary: rotating groups of women who juggle full-time work, children, school and home to help tag clothes, make inventory lists and sort the thousands of items that flood in during the months preceding the sale. Every piece is meticulously recorded, so there is no chance of anything going missing; everything is organised to the smallest detail. The sale has moved from its basement origin to larger venues now, and it’s usually inside a hotel ballroom that is only vacated after eleven pm the night before the sale. Which means expensive inventory has to be moved and the space set up in the middle of the night. And there I was along with thirty other women, packing vehicles with goods at ten thirty pm on a slightly chilly November night. One mum had just wrapped up a huge birthday party at her house, several mums had sick children they had just put to bed, all of us had to get up early the next morning to give the kids breakfast. Everyone just rolled up their sleeves, downed a cup of tea and got on with it, the way women do. We set up, went home at (literal) dawn and came back to man the stalls bright at early the next morning.
It’s common for people to be slightly sarcastic about things women do together, whether it’s lunch, work or charity. There’s always that underlying sniff whenever anyone takes the time to look nice doing any of it, or looks like they’re enjoying themselves. And there was the huge BBS team, operating on five hours of sleep (the way women often do during the course of their lives) and on their feet from eleven am to six pm, dealing with the throng of people who burst into the doors the minute they opened. It was my first time, but the older volunteers were pros—deftly helping customers, whipping out invoices and whizzing credit cards like experts and nabbing the light-fingered (yes, people steal from charity events too. Go figure). I tried to keep up with it as bells clanged every half an hour or so—the bell signals a lakh rupees earned, and a cheerful little snippet of song went with it. Everyone would whoop and clap along, and then get back to business. BBS volunteers aren’t allowed to shop at the sale until it’s almost over, so we sold all the beautiful treasures we really wanted with our own hands—a real lesson in having a big heart! It was the best day I’ve spent in a long time. The energy, the focus, the good cheer was infectious. Someone handed me a bottle of Coke, someone handed me a sandwich—the BBS family watches out for each other—and the day went scudding along. I only realised how tired I was when, back home, the adrenalin wore off and my feet suddenly reminded me that I’d been standing all day.
This year the Bargain Basement Sale raised ten million rupees. In one day. A day that was the result of weeks and weeks of hard work put in by dozens of people, but mostly—and I can’t stress this enough—women. I keep repeating it because I want to emphasise how proud I was to be a cog in the machine, watching and helping women come together in love and laughter to create something marvelous, and then keep doing it each year. Whoever thinks “women’s work” is something inferior to men’s should have dropped by any evening when inventory was being priced and listed, or the heard a sales pitch from a volunteer at the sale trying to move slow items or witnessed the hustle of the social media team. One crore rupees doesn’t just happen out of nowhere, money 100% transparently collected and donated to a host of charities ranging from cancer support, education and animal shelters. Everyone who donated to the cause were incredibly generous, from the filmstars conducting the auction to the designers who put on a BBS t-shirt and personally helped sell couture. Pakistanis aren’t the biggest charity-giving nation for naught, and The Fundraisers have truly made the difference a lot of us talk about but don’t really do.