‘My only way of being free’: How a Peruvian woman launched a fashion business from prison

Photo of Medalith Ravichahua, used with her permission.

March is Women's History Month, a time that invites us to reflect on the different ways of being a woman. We would therefore like to share the stories of Peruvian women deprived of their liberty. Their life experiences put into question narratives of control and patriarchal dominance — when what is considered female becomes less important than what is considered male, thus creating structural inequalities between men and women.

Prisons are often viewed as male environments in our social imagination. They have been built in accordance with the needs and experiences of men while disregarding those of women. They are also defined by violent dynamics. However, there are almost 75,000 women in prisons throughout the world, and these women show resilience and strategies to rebuild their lives behind bars. As researchers, we decided not to focus on their crimes, as this can lead to these women being pigeonholed and opens the door to more stigmatization.

In spite of challenging life stories and difficult prison conditions, there are women in prison today seeking to create new opportunities for themselves. This is the case of Medalith Ravichahua, owner of “The Queen's.

During her ten years in prison, Ravichahua began working as a hairstylist. Recently, on her way home from a long day at work, she told us about her time in the prison’s hair salon:

I was always working and working. That was how I de-stressed. I would work in the hair salon until about 9 or 10 in the evening […] It was my only way of being free.

Having the chance to work while in prison was not only a source of income, but also became an important resource in preserving her identity and protecting her mental health.

Identity and mental health are a collective experience, especially in societies blighted by inequality. Creating positive projects with those around her in prison, as well as those waiting for her outside, ultimately transformed her time in prison.

One day, Ravichahua, with her long nails and always impeccable hair, took on the challenge of learning to use a hammer and file during a shoemaking workshop. As the granddaughter of a shoemaker, she became invested in setting up her own footwear business from prison. And thus The Queen's was born.

She launched her business with support from her mother and son, who supplied the materials and dealt with the business set-up from outside using the prison’s mailing address. These were essential steps in consolidating the project, which would have been impossible without her strong connections with people outside. Once of legal age, her son also took on a leadership role within the business alongside her. Ravichahua recalls, with utmost pride, her son’s respect and empathy towards the other inmates working in The Queen's workshop:

As the son of an inmate, he didn’t make any difference and treated them like his mom. […] My son was empathetic and fulfilled his entrepreneurial role.

Being a woman in prison often means having much to offer and needing resources. But it also favors solidarity and pride as the essential foundations for business over the relentless pursuit of production. What’s more, a sense of collectivity set the atmosphere within the premises where the “Queen girls” made the shoes. Ravichahua subsequently enlisted teachers to train the women working alongside her. Some stayed to specialize, while others left to work in other prison workshops once trained. Nevertheless, The Queen's experience soon became a school-like environment.
Motivation was always key. With an eye on getting through prison and preparing for her release, Ravichahua established a link between mental health and work to boost her co-workers’ engagement.
It’s not a matter of being a businesswoman and production, production, production. No. Because money won’t free them, but their therapy will.

Photo of Medalith Ravichahua, used with her permission.

Although prison conditions are extremely difficult for men and women alike in Peru, women experience gender-related mandates and restrictions. As Ravichahua notes:
Unlike men, who have more freedom, whose wives can bring their things and who can go out and the likes, we can’t […] The difference between men and women is huge. This is because men have more freedom in all aspects, while women have outright restrictions.

Despite all this, Ravichahua successfully established a brand that has appeared in fashion shows, won inter-prison competitions, and was recognized at various institutional events. However, her greatest achievement was The Queen's becoming the first formal business to be launched by a women’s prison inmate and thereby providing work opportunities for other imprisoned women, like her:

This lets my friends know that they shouldn’t listen to what they tell us. We want to leave with a goal in mind. We must learn new things and remember that we should be model inmates. A prime example of resocialization. No matter what they say, we will keep pushing ahead.
Ravichahua leaves a lasting impression on those who know her and responds proactively when people say: “Just serve your time and get out, stop being annoying. Why do you want to start a business if you’re just going back to the same old thing when you get out?”
Released since 2021, but with the same incentive and drive that bolstered her projects in prison, she is now undertaking a new hairdressing project. She also aims to further enhance her footwear business.

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