Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 14 November 2019

'Not your habibti': How one Palestinian woman is clapping back at harassment with her designs

Designer and activist Yasmeen Mjalli also seeks to empower Palestinian artisans with her locally crafted pieces

Palestinian fashion designer Yasmeen Mjalli, left, and her creative director Amira Khader. AFP 
Palestinian fashion designer Yasmeen Mjalli, left, and her creative director Amira Khader. AFP 

In Ramallah and beyond, women are using their clothing to respond to street harassment, ­wearing jackets and T-shirts ­emblazoned with the words “Not your habibti”.

It’s a phrase coined by Yasmeen Mjalli, founder of BabyFist, a company from the Palestinian city that sells its apparel online and from a local store. “In saying not your habibti, you are reclaiming yourself and ­reinforcing the notion that you are not owned by anyone else,” reads the BabyFist website.

Mjalli, a 22-year-old ­Palestinian- American designer, came up with the phrase when she was a student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Searching for a statement jacket online, she was drawn to clothing with the phrase “Not your baby”. She decided to tweak the words to reflect her heritage, and replaced baby with habibti, the Arabic word for object of affection, on a jacket.

Yasmeen Mjalli first designed a 'Not your habibti' jacket for herself. AFP
Yasmeen Mjalli first designed a 'Not your habibti' jacket for herself. AFP

Two years ago, the jacket moved with Mjalli to Ramallah, where her family relocated from the United States. The move coincided with her feminist awakening, during which she was reading books including Feminism in Islam by Margot Badran. “Suddenly I became hyper-aware that my whole life had been subject to norms and structures of ­oppression,” she says. In patriarchal Ramallah, Mjalli saw this ­oppression manifest in the form of street ­harassment, a phenomenon she is quick to note exists in virtually every city in the world. She pulled her “Not your habibti” jacket out of the closet and posted a photo of her wearing it online – a sartorial response to the stares and comments from men on the street.

The picture – and the message – quickly went viral. Soon, women were asking her where they could get one of their own. Mjalli scoured vintage stores across the Palestinian West Bank looking for denim jackets to hand-paint and began to sell them. In 2017, her company, BabyFist – a term meant to evoke the image of “defiant youth” – was born. Today, BabyFist offers a range of clothing, including jeans, jackets, hoodies and T-shirts, many adorned with the signature catchphrase. Others utilise Arabic, English and French wordplay to express feminist messages. One shirt covered in roses features a line that translates to “Every rose has its revolution”, a retort to men who look upon women as “delicate flowers”, the designer says. The site also sells jewellery and tote bags.

Mjalli now lives in Durham, North Carolina, where she is enrolled in a master’s programme at Duke University, focusing on women in the Middle East. She returns to Ramallah often for her research and work on BabyFist. While she is the company’s primary ­designer, the clothes are manufactured in Gaza and Ramallah, as part of her mission to empower the Palestinian ­community. “I really think if you are going to produce clothing for a cause, it has to adhere to moral and ethical codes all around,” she says.

A Palestinian worker sews denim jackets for BabyFist. The clothing is now manufactured in Gaza and Ramallah, as part of designer Yasmeen Mjalli's mission to empower the Palestinian community. AFP
A Palestinian worker sews denim jackets for BabyFist. The clothing is manufactured in Gaza and Ramallah, as part of the designer's mission to empower the Palestinian community. AFP

There have been numerous challenges with the Gaza factory, called Hassan Shehadeh and Brothers, due to Israel’s blockade of the territory. Production was slow to get off the ground when Mjalli had trouble getting a sample jacket to the manufacturers. Since then, she has used WhatsApp to send her designs, but the transactions are far from seamless. Sometimes the items come in with mistakes, and they can also be severely delayed when tensions erupt between Israel and Gaza.

Last summer, during Gaza’s ­recurring Great March of Return protests, which were met with a heavy Israeli military response, it took months for a shipment of jackets to arrive, says Mjalli. She decided to use the delay as an opportunity to explain the political situation to her customers, and asked them to send messages of support to Palestinian lawyer Raja Shehadeh. “People genuinely believe in our work and were more than happy to wait,” says Mjalli.

She looks upon BabyFist as more than a clothing company, saying it is also a forum for exchange. On the company’s Instagram page – which counts almost 8,800 ­followers – ­Mjalli engages with fans and ­customers on topics related to ­feminism, faith and modern life. A recent discussion centred on the question of whether women are ­internalising sexism by wearing make-up; another one was about whether family and feminism are mutually exclusive.

The company also engages in ­activism. Last year, it began the Menstruation Education Campaign, hosting reproductive health workshops for girls in Palestinian public schools. The project, which is funded in part by proceeds from BabyFist’s sales, aims to fill a gap in education in the West Bank. “I know if these girls aren’t receiving that education in schools, they are not receiving it from their parents, or [the information] is incorrect, or drenched in shame and taboo,” she says.

Yasmeen Mjalli arranges leaflets for BabyFist, which carry an anti-sexual harassment slogans in her shop in Ramallah. AFP 
Yasmeen Mjalli arranges leaflets for BabyFist, which carry an anti-sexual harassment slogans in her shop in Ramallah. AFP

Mjalli also initiated the ­Typewriter Project, in which she sat with a typewriter in Ramallah for five hours and invited women to share their stories of sexual harassment, which she typed up as they spoke. Last year, she brought the project to American universities, and will take it on tour again later this year.

BabyFist’s efforts have earned it a lot of media attention, in both ­Arabic and English. This has led to a flurry of social media chatter, with some negative comments reinforcing the harassment that Mjalli seeks to confront. She took to BabyFist’s Facebook page to address the negativity, writing: “No one who ever set about to change the world did so on a path free of hate.”

In Palestine, she also gets pushback, from both women and men who tell her that women’s liberation must wait until Palestinians achieve independence. “I always say that [the two issues] are inherently tied to one another,” she says. “You can’t isolate these struggles, and if you do isolate them, you are only adding to your own oppression. You can’t fight for freedom with only half the population empowered.”

Updated: January 31, 2019 05:02 PM

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