The new digital and social media to discover Arabia and the Middle East. Offbeat. Innovative.

Yasmeen Mjalli: “There’s an urge to start a conversation about sexual harassment”

Yasmeen Mjalli

Yasmeen Mjalli

Fighting sexual harassment with fashion: a crazy idea that fed Yasmeen Mjalli, a palestinian designer, when she launched her brand: Babyfist. An online shop that sells women clothes displaying empowering statements. With catchy and voluntary thought-provocative quotes like “Not your habibti” (not your darling), she managed to draw international attention on her label 100% made in Palestine. But more than a clothing brand, Babyfist is also a platform of reflexion and discussion about gender issues in the arab world. A way to question ourselves about the different perceptions of féminism in the East as well as in the West.

How the idea of Babyfist came to you?

Babyfist is initially born out of an urge to start a conversation about sexual harassment and gender based discriminations. I was very frustrated to see that the discussions around me was not big or public enough. It made me very isolated and lonely, even if I knew it was an universal thing that most women have experienced at one point or an other. So I founded Babyfist to foster the discussion about things affecting women, to give back to the local community by giving proceeds to a cause that invest its energy in their future and  to invest in Palestinian economy by producing locally. I wanted to combine all these factors in a very beautiful way.

Do you think that we can really fight sexual harassment with clothes?

Babyfist is not just about producing clothes in Palestine and having empowering statements on a jacket, it is part of a larger network of things. The brand is being used to invest in our women future and start a conversation about issues that are affecting women both in Palestine and all over the world. Social misconducts is something you can experience everywhere, there are very few cultures in the world free from this.

Why did you decide to manufacture this brand entirely in Palestine?

We manufacture most of our clothes in Gaza between Gaza and the West Bank. We are very interested in working there because before the israeli blockade of Gaza which is terrorizing gaza now and for 10 years, the textile industry was almost 5 time as big as it is now. Manufactures and factories are now suffering because they don’t have the same economic strengths that before, so as part of an international effort to revitalized this industry, we have been working very closely with Hassan, our manufacturer there. Sometimes we want to make a shipment from Gaza to Ramallah and we can’t like last summer when nothing could come in or come out, but despite all of this instability we still want to work and support him, in order to keep that collection alive.

The online shop of Babyfist also contains a blog section where you talk a lot about feminism. You said that its goal is to shatter stereotypes. Which ones are you talking about?

There were so many elements of what it means to be a feminist that are so complexes that I wanted to foster a conversation and allowing people to read and comment. The stereotypes fall into two categories. The first one comes from the west. Colonialism and imperialism always justified the fact that brown girls needed to be saved from brown men and sees Islam as an oppressive religion.  But the fact of the matter is that misogyny is not an arab or muslim phenomenon but a universal one: domestic violences rates for example, are exactly the same in the US than in the rest of the world. So we try to educate the west on the dangers of stereotyping people by making them blind about their own problems, and we also fight our own local stereotypes according which a woman should only be a woman or a wife or that she couldn’t access certain job positions.

As a palestinian woman raised and educated in  the United States, what is the most difficult in combining those two conceptions of feminism?

For me this isn’t complicated to combine two identities in terms of feminism. Feminism doesn’t change whether I am in the US or Palestine, although there are shades of feminism according the region of the world. A lot of my work is to strengthen this idea that feminism is  a universal concern and my two backgrounds gave me this opportunity to see this.

You also launched a campaign on your website, by donating 10% of the proceeds into sexual and menstruation education. Can you talk about it?

The menstruation education campaign was launched in october 2018 to educate schoolgirls in Palestine about their periods. Just like girls all over the world, these young girls grow up in a world where they are told that their bodies are a short of shame that they shouldn’t be curious about. In Palestine, there is no sexual education or menstruation education in the curriculum so they have to learn from their mothers and sometimes end up considering their body is something very scary.  A lot of girls dont understand their body because they are not given a proper education about it. We wanted to challenge this status by providing them a safe space to start asking questions and being proud of their body. Since 2019, we are trying to target as many schools as possible and advocate to make menstruation education part of the national program for schoolgirls.