‘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.’”


Fashion capital New York considers banning sale of fur

Updated 17 April 2019
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Fashion capital New York considers banning sale of fur

  • Lawmakers are pushing a measure that would ban the sale of all new fur products in the city
  • “Cruelty should not be confused with economic development,” a sponsor of the legislation said

NEW YORK: A burgeoning movement to outlaw fur is seeking to make its biggest statement yet in the fashion mecca of New York City.
Lawmakers are pushing a measure that would ban the sale of all new fur products in the city where such garments were once common and style-setters including Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Joe Namath and Sean “Diddy” Combs have all rocked furs over the years.
A similar measure in the state Capitol in Albany would impose a statewide ban on the sale of any items made with farmed fur and ban the manufacture of products made from trapped fur.
Whether this is good or bad depends on which side of the pelt you’re on. Members of the fur industry say such bans could put 1,100 people out of a job in the city alone. Supporters dismiss that and emphasize that the wearing of fur is barbaric and inhumane.
“Cruelty should not be confused with economic development,” said state Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Democrat from Manhattan, who is sponsoring the state legislation. “Fur relies on violence to innocent animals. That should be no one’s business.”
The fate of the proposals could be decided in the coming months, though supporters acknowledge New York City’s measure has a better chance of passage than the state legislation.
The fur trade is considered so important to New York’s development that two beavers adorn the city’s official seal, a reference to early Dutch and English settlers who traded in beaver pelts.
At the height of the fur business in the last century, New York City manufactured 80% of the fur coats made in the U.S, according to FUR NYC, a group representing 130 retailers and manufacturers in the city. The group says New York City remains the largest market for fur products in the country, with real fur still frequently used as trim on coats, jackets and other items.
If passed, New York would become the third major American city with such a ban, following San Francisco, where a ban takes effect this year, and Los Angeles, where a ban passed this year will take effect in 2021.
Elsewhere, Sao Paulo, Brazil, began its ban on the import and sale of fur in 2015. Fur farming was banned in the United Kingdom nearly 20 years ago, and last year London fashion week became the first major fashion event to go entirely fur-free.
Fur industry leaders warn that if the ban passes in New York, emboldened animal rights activists will want more.
“Everyone is watching this,” said Nancy Daigneault, vice president at the International Fur Federation, an industry group based in London. “If it starts here with fur, it’s going to go to wool, to leather, to meat.”
When asked what a fur ban would mean for him, Nick Pologeorgis was blunt: “I’m out of business.”
Pologeorgis’ father, who emigrated from Greece, started the fur design and sales business in the city’s “Fur District” nearly 60 years ago.
“My employees are nervous,” he said. “If you’re 55 or 50 and all you’ve trained to do is be a fur worker, what are you going to do?“
Supporters of the ban contend those employees could find jobs that don’t involve animal fur, noting that an increasing number of fashion designers and retailers now refuse to sell animal fur and that synthetic substitutes are every bit as convincing as the real thing.
They also argue that fur retailers and manufacturers represent just a small fraction of an estimated 180,000 people who work in the city’s fashion industry and that their skills can readily be transferred.
“There is a lot of room for job growth developing ethically and environmentally friendly materials,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who introduced the city measure.
New Yorkers asked about the ban this week came down on both sides, with some questioning if a law was really needed.
“It is a matter of personal choice. I don’t think it’s something that needs to be legislated,” said 44-year-old Janet Thompson. “There are lots of people wearing leather and suede and other animal hides out there. To pick on fur seems a little one-sided.”
Joshua Katcher, a Manhattan designer and author who has taught at the Parsons School of Design, says he believes the proposed bans reflect an increased desire to know where our products come from and for them to be ethical and sustainable.
“Fur is a relic,” he said.