‘Not your habibti’: Palestinian designer seeks to empower women

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Palestinian designer Yasmeen Mjalli started painting slogans on her own clothes when the family relocated to the West Bank. (AFP)
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Palestinian designer Yasmeen Mjalli sees the clothes as helping empower Palestinian women facing unwelcome male attention in public. (AFP)
Updated 16 January 2019
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‘Not your habibti’: Palestinian designer seeks to empower women

  • Designer Yasmeen Mjalli sees the clothes as helping empower Palestinian women facing unwelcome male attention in public
  • Mjalli says that her fight against harassment of women is unconnected to the #MeToo movement

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories: It’s only three words on a T-shirt or embroidered on a denim jacket in Palestinian designer Yasmeen Mjalli’s collection, but they carry a powerful message: “Not your habibti,” or darling.
She sees the clothes as helping empower Palestinian women facing unwelcome male attention in public.
“When a woman is exposed to so much harassment on the street, she begins to dress to protect herself, to hide herself as opposed to expressing herself,” the 22-year-old art history graduate says, leaning against the counter of her shop in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.
On fabrics of muted colors and on canvas bags from her BabyFist label, she places messages in English and Arabic inside drawings of flowers and other designs.
“Every rose has its revolution,” one says.
Mjalli grew up in the US, where she lived with her Palestinian parents.
She started painting slogans on her own clothes when the family relocated to the West Bank and she found herself facing a different reality.
“I have experienced things like comments, really uncomfortable stares, the kind that make you feel very violated,” she said.
“I have been assaulted in the streets, people touching me,” she adds, catching one tattooed arm in her other hand to mimic being grabbed.
In August 2017, she launched her first collection and a few months later opened the Ramallah shop to complement her existing online sales.
“It’s not like the T-shirt is going to stop harassment,” she says.
But it’s “a reminder that you are part of something bigger that is working to empower women and to give back in some way and that is trying to have this conversation that challenges all of these structures which we are victims of too,” she adds.
The goal, Mjalli says, is to create a community.
Using Instagram, free workshops in her shop and public places where she sometimes installs herself with a typewriter, she offers Palestinian women the freedom to express their feelings and tell stories they cannot share elsewhere.
She donates around 10 percent of her fashion earnings to a local women’s group.
One project she funds sent a doctor and volunteers into schools to teach Palestinian girls about menstruation, a subject still largely taboo.
While defining herself as a feminist, Mjalli says that her fight against harassment of women is unconnected to the #MeToo movement.
“I don’t think it’s related even though it happened at the same time,” she said, though acknowledging that the movement gave her own efforts a boost.
“It’s a very American and it’s a very white feminism, and it’s not what we are doing here.”
All BabyFist garments are made in the Palestinian territories.
Jackets are sewn in Hassan Shehada’s Gaza workshop.
Among the sewing machines humming under florescent lights, Shehada shows a denim jacket embroidered with “Not your habibti.”
“I am proud that women wear the fruits of my labors and I am also very proud that they are labeled ‘Made in Palestine’,” he says.
In the past three months, he has made 1,500 items for BabyFist.
It was a breath of fresh air for Shehada’s business in the Gaza Strip, under an Israeli blockade for more than a decade and with endemic high unemployment.
“Working with BabyFist has given me back hope,” he says, adding that it has fulfilled a dream of exporting to Europe.
But manufacturing in Gaza comes at a cost.
Israeli restrictions mean jackets have been held up for weeks when the land crossing through Israel was closed due to mass Palestinian protests and clashes along the fence, Mjalli said.
“The border was closed indefinitively and we couldn’t get anything in or out,” she said. “It’s a constant battle.”
She says that around 40 percent of her sales are made in the Ramallah store and 60 percent online, mostly to the Palestinian and broader Arab diaspora.
Not everyone, however, is a fan.
Mjalli has come under fire from conservatives, who say she draws attention to women’s bodies by designing clothes that carry provocative messages.
Her criticism of some aspects of Palestinian society has also raised the hackles of those who believe that the struggle against Israeli occupation is the only legitimate public campaign.
For her, the fight for Palestinian independence and campaigning for women’s rights are intertwined.
“The occupation robs men in our society of any sense of control, any sense of masculinity which in turn affects women’s rights,” she says.
For Mjalli, there have been “already two or three generations of women that have had to suffer while we say: ‘OK, you can wait.’”


Why Bollywood can’t get enough of fashion from the Arab world

No major red-carpet event in India is complete without at least a couple of leading ladies wearing a gown from an Arab designer. (AFP)
Updated 37 min 30 sec ago
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Why Bollywood can’t get enough of fashion from the Arab world

  • When Indian cinema’s leading ladies need to slay on the red carpet, they are increasingly turning to Middle East designers.

DUBAI: Bollywood has long been popular in the region. The Gulf is Indian cinema’s largest overseas market, and — in return — Bollywood has fallen in love with fashion from the Middle East. The two have plenty in common: not least a passion for opulence, (melo)drama and craftsmanship.

No major red-carpet event in India is complete without at least a couple of leading ladies wearing a gown from an Arab designer — and designers from, or based in, the Middle East are increasingly becoming the “go-to” for Indian actors at international film festivals too. At the most recent edition of the Cannes Film Festival, for example, Priyanka Chopra wore a white strapless gown from Lebanese designer Georges Hobeika, Aishwarya Rai wore a white gown by Beirut-based Ashi Studio, Kangana Ranaut opted for a sheer embroidered gown by Dubai-based Filipino designer Michael Cinco and Diana Penty was spotted in a yellow dress with feather details by Oman’s Atelier Zuhra.

Priyanka Chopra wears Georges Hobeika. (AFP)

Mohit Rai, one of India’s leading celebrity stylists, started his career with Harper’s Bazaar India and made the switch to working with Bollywood several years ago. His client list includes Kareena Kapoor Khan, Sonakshi Sinha and Shilpa Shetty. He says, “The Middle East is the only other region apart from India that really appreciates a high level of couture and craftsmanship. Their common aesthetic is a major reason for Indian stylists looking to Middle Eastern fashion. Plus, Arab designers are able to combine the Parisian and European flair for pattern cutting while retaining the Indian love for embellishment.” 

With many designers from the Middle East showing at Paris Couture Week (this year, Maison Rabih Kayrouz became the second Arab designer after Elie Saab to be authorized by the French Couture Federation to use the tag haute couture), they understand silhouette and tailoring, and because the region has a heritage of handcrafted beading and threadwork, they are able to marry the best of East and West.

Dubai-based Syrian designer Rami Al-Ai recently worked with Bollywood star Kareena Kapoor Khan. “We both appreciate the same beauty, and there’s a lot of similarity in the way they celebrate life. Both have this kind of dramatic celebration when it comes to weddings and functions.” Indeed, when Deepika Padukone married Ranveer Singh last year, she turned to acclaimed Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad for one of her wedding looks.

Aishwarya Rai wore an Ashi Studio gown on the red carpet at Cannes this year. (AFP)

There are designers in India who specialize in red-carpet fashion, and while their surface embellishments are impeccable, their fit often is not on par with their embroidery. Historically Indian fashion is more about drape than construction, as Rai points out.

“I do not think India has enough designers catering to the Western evening wear segment in a very couture category such as the Middle Eastern ones,” he tells Arab News.

His favoured Arab designers include Beirut-band ased Saudi Arabian designer Mohammed Ashi of Ashi Studio, Kuwait’s Yousef Al-Jasmi, Dubai based Atelier Zuhra. Whereas Hollywood tends to go with the region’s best-known designers such as Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad — who both have a strong international retail presence — Bollywood is happy to work with both seasoned and emerging designers.

Diana Penty wears Atelier Zuhra. (Via Instagram)

A shared aesthetic is what makes Arab design appeal to Bollywood’s stylists, but there is also a more pragmatic reason for the synergy between the Bollywood red carpet and Middle Eastern fashion: Their geographical proximity.

Ami Patel is one of the best-known celebrity stylists in India and works with stars including Priyanka Chopra, Alia Bhatt and Kananga Ranaut. She finds it easier to work with the Middle East than Europe, she says.

“I think Middle Eastern designers understand the Indian body type and silhouette very well. They know exactly what Indian celebrities want and cater to them. Since the countries are in close proximity working with them becomes easier.”

Patel adds that she finds designers from the region can work on quick turnarounds and are able to tweak designs when needed. Indian women do tend to be curvy, so regular European sample sizes are often just not an option for many of India’s leading ladies. And whereas European fashion houses may have only heard of Indian actors who have done international work — such as Priyanka Chopra or Deepika Padukone — designers from the Middle East are familiar with the landscape of Indian cinema, meaning they are easier to approach. As Patel says, “Middle Eastern designers follow Bollywood films and stars very closely and it’s a great amalgamation which has some really great outcomes.” 

Deepika Padukone in a wedding outfit from Zuhair Murad. (AFP)

One recent look of which Patel is particularly proud is Alia Bhatt’s appearance in a midnight-black Zuhair Murad gown at the Indian International Film Academy Awards in New York.

“It was a really special look for me,” she says. “The gown was stunning; it had such beautiful delicate embroidery which gave an illusion as if the entire constellation of stars had descended onto Alia.”

Alia Bhatt in a midnight-black Zuhair Murad gown at the Indian International Film Academy Awards in New York. (AFP) 

The fact that the region is so close to India also means that Indian celebrities regularly visit the Middle East.

“A lot of Indian celebrities are doing a lot of events in the Middle East, and that plays a big role in picking what kind of outfits to wear,” says Rai.

Priyanka Chopra in Dubai. (AFP) 

Dubai designer Rami Al-Ali agrees. “Bollywood stars are also celebrities in the Middle East world,” he says.

“Since the Middle East is actually aligned with the industry, they are definitely keener on dressing Indian stars and even willing to customise and size outfits for our actors,” says Rai. And so, for Indian cinema, it is Arab designers who rule the red carpet.