The young Palestinian bringing #MeToo movement to the West Bank

February 4, 2018

NEWS DESK: A Palestinian-American woman has been heralded the “driving force” of the Middle East’s “Me Too” movement after selling clothing with the slogan “Not Your Habibti (darling)” to women in the West Bank, reported The Independent with additional input from AP.

Yasmeen Mjalli said she started to design t-shirts, jackets and hoodies with the bold phrase as a way to encourage Palestinian society to confront sexual harassment.

The 21-year-old is the founder of BabyFist – what she describes as a social movement for gender equality in Palestinian territories and the greater Arab world. She started the campaign in response to her own personal experience of street harassment, but it quickly grew into a bigger project.

“What I am doing is to start a conversation that people are really afraid to have,” she said.

The graduate has also faced backlash from conservatives and some activists who say fighting Israel‘s occupation is the priority for Palestinians.

Her parents, who grew up in a Palestinian farming town and emigrated to the US before returning to the West Bank five years ago, have not supported the campaign either.

“To be able to have peace with them, I have to check my feminism at the door, which is very difficult because that’s really who I am,” she said.

Ms Mjalli’s idea of designing clothes with a feminist message emerged during her time at the University of North Carolina, where she studied for a degree in art history.

At the time, she decorated her denim jacket with “Not your Habibti,” a slogan that reflected her Arab roots. She posted a photo of the jacket online last year for International Women’s Day, sparking a deluge of interest from potential buyers.

For a few months, she bought, transformed and sold second-hand jackets, then in August, she launched her business, Baby Fist, which now runs workshops in Gaza and the West Bank making T-shirts, hoodies and jackets.

Ms Mjalli estimates she has sold close to 500 pieces, with about 70 per cent of her sales in the diaspora.​

​Women across the Arab world have made strides towards equality, outnumbering men in many universities and joining the work force in growing numbers. Yet they struggle to break free from the constraints of patriarchy.

Traditional Arab societies assign rigid gender roles, with men as guardians of their female relatives’ “honour” — effectively a ban on male-female friendships or sex outside marriage. Women violating those rules risk being ostracised or — in extreme cases — being killed by male relatives, who count on leniency from the courts.

Rules are looser among urban elites. But even in Ramallah — the most liberal West Bank town with many Western-educated Palestinians and foreigners — women watch their step.

Women risk getting blamed if they complain, said Wafa Abdelrahman, who runs a closed Facebook group for female journalists. “The blame will be, ‘for sure, you did something wrong or you gave the wrong signal, the way you dress, the way you talk’,” she said.

Palestinian police receive few complaints about street harassment, said spokesman Loay Irzeqat. He believes some women fear unintended consequences, such as male relatives attacking accused harassers.

Police mostly deal with online harassment, with about one-third of some 2,000 electronic crimes cases in 2017 revolving around men blackmailing women for sexual or financial gain, he said.

Typically, extortionists threaten to publish photos deemed compromising, such as showing a traditional woman without her headscarf.

Women lack legal protection, despite improvements such as the establishment of a police sex crimes unit, said Amal Kreishe, founder of the Palestinian Working Woman Society for Development to which Ms Mjalli donates some of her proceeds.

“All the talk about women’s equality and rights is lip service,” she said.