The three words stand out in letters printed on a T-shirt or embroidered on a denim jacket: “Not your habibti!” With her clothing line, Yasmeen Mjalli wants to restore the Palestinian women’s confidence in street harassment.
“When a woman is exposed to so much harassment in the street, she starts dressing to protect herself, she hides behind her clothes,” says the 22-year-old Palestinian-American designer, leaning on the counter of her shop in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.
The clothes she draws for her brand BabyFist want to “restore confidence to women”. On rather sober fabrics and canvas bags, messages in Arabic and English are written in the middle of drawings of flowers and silhouettes: “Every rose has its revolution”, “The voice of women moves the mountain” …
Sentences that this graduate in art history first traced to paint on her own clothes, in response to the situations she faced when she arrived in the West Bank, after growing up in the United States, raised by Palestinian parents.
“I got comments, insistent and embarrassing looks, the kind that makes you feel that your privacy has been violated, I was assaulted in the streets, people were touching me,” she says, catching her arm covered with tattoos to mimic the gesture.
In August 2017, she launched her clothing collection and, a few months later, opened a shop in Ramallah to complete online sales.
– “Made in Palestine” –
“It’s not a T-shirt that will stop the harassment,” admits Yasmeen Mjalli, but “it’s a reminder that you’re part of something bigger that wants to empower women,” that “you are not alone anymore.
On Instagram, in free workshops that she organizes in the shop or in the public space where she settles sometimes equipped with a typewriter, the young woman offers to the Palestinian women a place to pour out freely.
Of the sales she makes, 10 per cent goes to a local association that helps women and projects, one of which involves the sending of a doctor and volunteers to schools to educate young Palestinian girls. the question of the rules, an intimate subject still taboo.
While defining herself as a feminist, the designer claims that her initiatives “are unrelated” to the #MeToo movement even though she acknowledges that it has given her some visibility.
All BabyFist clothes are “made in Palestine”. The jackets are woven in Hassan Shehada’s workshop in Gaza.
In the middle of sewing machines, under the white glow of neon lights, the boss presents with a broad smile the denim jacket with the inscription “Not your habibti”.
“I am proud that women are the fruit of my work,” says the 50-year-old in the remote Palestinian enclave of the West Bank a few kilometres but suffocated by an Israeli blockade for more than ten years.
– “Depriving of masculinity” –
“And I am very proud also that it is written on this garment: Made in Palestine,” he says. Because most of the pieces that come out of his workshop are usually stamped “Made in Israel”.
In the past three months, he has manufactured 1,500 pieces for BabyFist. A breath of fresh air for his workshop, which employs almost only men: “Working with BabyFist gave me hope,” says Hassan Shehada, who claims to have realized his dream of producing clothes for the European market.
But manufacturing in Gaza has a price: because of the blockade, jackets sometimes remain blocked for weeks, while Palestinians in Gaza have demonstrated in recent months along the barrier of separation between Israel and the enclave.
“The border was closed, we could not get in or out,” says Yasmeen Mjalli. “It’s a constant struggle”.
According to her, about 40% of sales are made in stores in Ramallah and 60% online, a large majority for clients of the Palestinian or Arab diaspora.
His business does not please everyone. Conservatives have criticized him for drawing attention to the bodies of women by drawing clothes that they say provocative messages. Other critics believe that the fight against the Israeli occupation is the only cause that deserves to be carried in public.
“We have been busy for 70 years (…) Two or three generations of women have already suffered while we say ‘OK, you can wait’,” replies the young woman.
For her, the two fights come together. “The occupation (Israeli in the West Bank) deprives men in our society of any sense of control and any feeling of masculinity and, in turn, it affects the rights of women.”