Friday, November 16, 2018

‘#NotYourHabibti’ addresses sexual harassment in the Arab world


By Ruth Regan - February 12, 2018
TAGS:
Section: [Main News] [Culture] [Features]
Tags: [women‘s rights] [embroidery] [sex] [sexual abuse] [development]

In retaliation to what she felt was rampant street harassment in Palestine, Yasmeen Mjalli began designing defiant pieces of clothing, in the process coining the phrase #NotYourHabibti.

In an introductory video to herself and the brand, Mjalli explained:
 
“Habibti” literally translates into “my dear” which implies ownership. And by saying “not your habibti” you are reclaiming yourself and reinforcing the notion that you are not owned by anyone else.”
 
Intent on opening up a wider conversation, Mjalli, now just 21 years old, took to the streets of Ramallah, Palestine’s de-facto capital, and invited women to share their stories of street and sexual harassment, which she documented on a typewriter.
 
Her socially-conscious clothing line, BabyFist, exists as an online shop and can also be found in Sistersclothing store in Ramallah.
 
The denim jackets and other items are crafted in a workshop in Gaza, before a co-op of women in the West Bank’s Al-Ram embroider on the iconic hashtag, amongst other phrases and imagery, such as the Palestinian poppy.
 
Speaking to Palestine Monitor, Mjalli described how “Gaza’s textile industry used to be huge but over the last decade it was virtually diminished, virtually destroyed.”
 
“It’s at a thirteenth, I believe, of what it used to be in size and reach,” Mjalli said.
 
Supporting the industry’s redevelopment is an important motivation for Mjalli.
 
However not being able to visit the workshop in person, due to the blockade of the Gaza Strip by Israel and Egypt since 2007, makes things less straightforward.
 
“It’s definitely frustrating [not being able to communicate face to face with the staff]. I can’t just march into the office… Last fall it took three months longer than it was supposed to to get the jackets done.”
 
BabyFist also proudly donates 10% of its proceeds to the Palestinian Working Woman Society for Development (PWWSD) which believes in 'mobilizing women’s participation in the struggle against the Israeli occupation’ and that liberating women 'is connected directly with ending the occupation and establishing a full Palestinian democratic sovereign civil state.’
 
Such a stance undermines Mjalli’s critics, who claim female liberation is a cause second (or even third, fourth or fifth) to Palestinian liberation and fighting for the former before achieving the latter is no more than a distraction.
 
On the other hand, the campaign also has a lot of support. It has received a deluge of press attention since the #MeToo movement - a social media campaign calling out incidents of sexual assault and harassment - blew up in October 2017.
 
Whilst Mjalli acknowledges the validity of the #MeToo movement, she takes issue with constant comparison of the two hashtags. Not least because her movement predates #MeToo by two years.
 
“One reporter used a subheading along the lines of 'It’s not a copycat #MeToo movement like you may think’. But even that was annoying. Why would you frame it like that? It’s so Eurocentric,” said Mjalli.
 
“It’s great, obviously, that #MeToo is happening. It’s starting a conversation and also no one would be being taking me seriously if it wasn’t for #MeToo.”

“It’s also really important because if #NotYourHabibti was happening on its own it would make it seem like sexual harassment and sexual assault and gender inequality was inherently Arab, so I’m really happy that it’s not.”
 
“It’s really truly an international conversation in so many ways. I run into so many girls who say “this is happening on my campus” in say, the UK or in Egypt.”
But Mjalli stressed the need for cultural specificity in feminist movements.
 
“They [different movements] should ask each another questions like 'How are we similar?’ 'How are we different?’ 'How can we come together?’ That would be great.”
 
“If #MeToo is white feminism, fine. Then #NotYourHabibti is Arab feminism and Muslim feminism and I’d also hope there’s one in say, eastern Asia.”
 
“White feminism” is a critique often heard against mainstream feminism in the west for not being inclusive of women of colour or women outside of “privilege”, nor addressing the issues affecting these women.
 
Writing in the Middle East Monitor, Yvonne Ridley recent addressed the lack of solidarity for Palestinian women within mainstream feminism.
 
“Feminists, though, need to start standing up for women from the East who are exploited and worse, including the women of Palestine. They don’t need rescuing from Hamas or their hijabs, they need protection against a brutal, misogynistic army which targets women and children, puts them in prison, disrupts their education and destroys their lives,” she wrote.
 
In her next project, “Buried and Freed”, Mjalli draws upon the cultural fabric of the Middle East, which will be presented in various art-forms.
 
The project explores the pre-Islamic practice in parts of Arabia called “Wa’d [al-banat]”.
 
“Infant girls were buried alive immediately upon birth in an effort to protect the family and tribe from potential dishonour. And while that was condemned as soon as the Qur’an was written, I feel like it’s still metaphorically practiced socially and culturally through those norms and so women, from just sheer terror, and from this idea of breaking this honour code, never come forward to share things that are happening with them,” she explained.
 
“So I feel like the only way to catalyse social impact and social change is through expression.”
 
The concepts of 'Buried’ and 'Freed’ will be seen woven into her next clothing designs as well as in an exhibit, where she plans to share the letters she collected through the #NotYourHabibti typewriting project.
 
“I’m so excited I can finally say what I’m doing with the letters,” Mjalli told Palestine Monitor.
 
The women’s accounts collected on her typewriter will be featured in an interactive exhibit she is curating, confirmed so far for Rome, Poland and New York.
 
And of course at some point, “at home in Ramallah,” she added.
 
“[There will be] two infant coffins. (Bear with me!) One with the letters in and the other with honey candies. It’s an interactive exhibition where the participators are encouraged to read the letters and when you’ve had your fill, you close the coffin and get your candy from the other one. It’s this idea of resurrection and catharsis.”
 
Mjalli has drawn upon Islamic influences for this concept.
 
“In the Qur’an there’s these verses which refer to the practice on Judgement Day where these girls will be given a space before God to point out who did things to them, what happened and then by Divine Right, to free their souls to get into Heaven.”
 
“So it’s like by expressing what happened to you and speaking out then you are finally freed as a woman. And by reading these letters you are re-enacting this process.”
 
Mjalli is also hosting a poetry event in Ramallah based around influential feminist Arab texts. It will serve as another opportunity for Palestinian women to share their experiences.
 
“If people feel like it, they can come forward and share in a safe group, and not only that but connect and find support with other women.”
 
Mjalli believes the event will serve its purpose better as a women-only space.
“I want it to be women only because… with some women, especially women raised here, as soon as a man’s in the room, they’re terrified. Through social, subconscious training, they don’t speak out and they’re not as comfortable.”
 
“When I do the typewriter events with #NotYourHabibti I only ask women to come forward. If a man comes forward I’ll talk to him, but I don’t beckon them.”
 
“What’s crazy is that as soon as one man comes to the table, all the men flock and create a barricade so that women can’t come forward even if they wanted to.”
 
“[Dominating the space,] as they always do.”
 
Mjalli doesn’t see #NotYourHabibti as a life-long project.
 
“In my head this is just a chapter of my life.”
 
She is currently applying for a Masters in Women’s Studies, hoping to eventually teach, work in NGOs or even in the Palestinian government. She is especially attracted to working with the Palestinian think tank Gender Policy Institute.
 
“I did this event called Dear Prime Minister on January 20 where we wrote a letter to the Prime Minister about why we wanted to see the Women and Childen Act passed. It’s a law that will protect women and children from domestic violence.
 
Yesterday was a cool day because someone from the Gender Policy Institute shared an article with me letting me know it’s finally reached the point where it will be finalised.
 
Domestic Abuse is now a crime and there’s legal resources to take the men to court.”

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