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How this Ramallah shop teaches women to fight against harassment

Palestinian-American Yasmeen Mjalli created BabyFist to speak out against street harassment in Ramallah, but the shop quickly turned into a safe space for women to share their stories and seek legal advice.

The BabyFist shop in downtown Ramallah has a sleek, minimal design with just a handful of handmade, seasonal apparel in the window display, unlike many of the shop windows to be found in this West Bank city. Even more out of the ordinary is the brand’s feminist message both on its clothes and in its social projects.

The shop’s founder and owner, Yasmeen Mjalli, 23, moved back to Ramallah in 2017 after growing up in North Carolina. As she was trying to settle in her new city, the sexual harassment she faced on the streets simply astonished her. “I was experiencing a lot of harassment on the streets because I was living in the baladia [city center],” she told Al-Monitor. “It’s really debilitating, right? This was something that people have just been normalizing — no one reacted.”

Her campaign — which later became the slogan of her clothes brand — was born from the catcalls she heard. She created the slogan “not your habibti” — translated as “Not your sweetheart.” Habibti, meaning “sweetheart” in Arabic, is a common phrase that men shout out to women on the streets — similar to “hey baby” in English. The phrase can now be reclaimed by women as it adorns the front of their T-shirts or back of their denim jackets that Mjalli created.

More than just making cute clothes with punchy slogans, Mjalli wanted to start a conversation on women's issues and feminism. So she took a typewriter and went on the streets of Ramallah to ask women to tell their stories of abuse. After a while, not just women but anyone who doesn’t necessarily conform to traditional gender norms was eager to tell stories of mistreatment, harassment, discrimination or abuse.

When the store opened in August 2018, Mjalli purposefully designed it with clothes on one side and a seating area on the other, creating a safe space where women can come and freely talk about their experiences. So the "typewriter project" continued with the workshops at the store, and some 200 stories were collected.

Mjalli made them into a book and held a US tour, visiting 14 universities, including Stanford and Dartmouth. “If I [told] you all the stories of sexual harassment and assault I’ve collected from both Palestine and the United States and asked you to pin them on the map, you wouldn’t be able to,” she said. “These experiences transcend geography, nationality, race and religion.”

After hearing the stories, Mjalli started reflecting about how she and the BabyFist team could help women with the problems they face — such as street harassment, domestic violence, family restrictions and any other gender-based oppression women might feel in Palestine and elsewhere. The team set its goal as fighting culturally imposed shame surrounding women — whether that be in the form of personal apparel, menstruation, sex or just raising their voice.

Since September, Mjalli and her business partner Amira Khader, 25, have led a Menstrual Education Campaign, in which BabyFist finances a team of educators, medical professionals and artists to visit schools in remote villages and refugee camps to help explain to fifth- and sixth-grade girls the changes their bodies will go through in adolescence. Mjalli and Khader said they have decided to earmark 10% of their earnings from BabyFist to the project.

“Young girls never really get this type of education when they are in school, particularly in villages and in camps,” Khader told Al-Monitor. “So we wanted to be the first resource to tell them about how to deal with this big change.”

Part of the challenge is to make sure that the girls are not caught unaware and feel shame. So the BabyFist team gives the girls a personal bag with the slogan “The voice of women can move mountains” embroidered on it in Arabic to carry around their complimentary sanitary pads. "We want them to carry this bag with pride," Khader said.

The team also wants to help Palestinian women on the legal front when they face discrimination and harassment. “We welcome any girl or any woman who wants to share a story [or] who wants to ask for legal advice,” Khader told Al-Monitor.

Last month, BabyFist volunteer and law student Rawan Nairat, 23, helped a woman who came into the store to talk of rape. “She doesn’t know much about the legal system here in Palestine and I found that I can support her,” Nairat said. Although still working toward her license and therefore unable to take the woman's defense herself, Nairat introduced the young woman to a few lawyers in her law firm and accompanied her to court sittings. 

For Nairat, this woman’s case was painfully close to her own experience with sexual violence as a child. ”But I didn’t have the courage to talk about it. I felt really weak, like I can neither talk about it nor do anything,” she confided to Al-Monitor, explaining this was part of the reason she decided to study law — to empower herself and help others.

Khader, who is also a student of law, said it was difficult to make substantial legal changes in Palestine under occupation. “When you live under occupation, the political system is not really stable,” she told Al-Monitor. “This also means the economy, the legal system.… It’s really difficult [to change things] while the Israelis control every single detail about your life.”

The Palestine-Israeli conflict also means that fighting gender-based oppression gets swept to the side as fighting the occupation takes center stage. “In a place under occupation, it is sometimes difficult to find who you are and to talk freely about [feminism] because people push you to talk only about Palestine — the focal point for societal struggle,” Khader said.

BabyFist believes that the brand can make a difference. “We are trying to empower [women] through clothes,” Nairat said. “[We want to] see women respecting themselves, their bodies, their sexuality in general. When this happens, she can reflect that change onto the society.”

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