A young Palestinian-American is the driving force behind a nascent #MeToo movement in the West Bank, selling T-shirts, hoodies and denim jackets with the slogan “Not Your Habibti” (darling) as a retort for catcalls, and writing down women’s complaints from her perch in a West Bank square.
Yasmeen Mjalli, 21, wants to encourage Palestinian society to confront the largely taboo subject of sexual harassment.
“What I am doing is to start a conversation that people are really afraid to have,” said Mjalli.
She has faced backlash from conservatives and some activists who say fighting Israel’s occupation is the priority for Palestinians.
Her parents immigrated to the United States and returned to the West Bank five years ago, weren’t pleased, either.
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“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,” said Mjalli, who moved to the West Bank last year after graduating from the University of North Carolina with a degree in art history.
Mjalli and other activists say that starting a conversation about sexual harassment doesn’t mean copying the #MeToo movement in the U.S., where victims are speaking out in growing numbers. Cultural differences require a different approach.
Women across the Arab world have made strides toward equality, outnumbering men in many universities and joining the workforce 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’ “honor” – effectively a ban on male-female friendships or sex outside marriage. Women violating those rules risk being ostracized or – in extreme cases – killed by male relatives.
Rules are looser among urban elites. But even in Ramallah, the most liberal West Bank town, 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.
University student Nadine Moussa, 22, said women know the trouble spots. “I never ever walked in the city center of Ramallah without being harassed verbally, but I don’t face that in the neighborhoods,” she said, adding that her coed campus is relatively safe.
Palestinian police receive few complaints about street harassment, said spokesman Loay Irzeqat. He believes some women fear consequences, such as male relatives attacking accused harassers.
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 Mjalli donates some of her proceeds.
“All the talk about women’s equality and rights is lip service,” said Kreishe. Still, she has witnessed gradual changes. More women seek counseling from her group, which has referred about 200 complaints to police over the past two years.
In the West Bank, Mjalli is pushing boundaries with what she calls “typewriter events.”
On a recent day, she sat behind a table in Ramallah’s Clock Square, taking notes on a typewriter – as women sitting across from her shared stories about harassment. The event was also meant to generate support for passing laws protecting women, she said.
Her idea of designing clothes with a feminist message goes back to college.
At the time, she decorated her denim jacket with “Not your Habibti.” Mjalli posted a photo of the jacket online last year for International Women’s Day, stirring interest from potential buyers.
For a few months, she bought, transformed and sold secondhand jackets. Last August she launched her business, Baby-Fist, with workshops in Gaza and the West Bank.
Mjalli estimates she has sold close to 500 pieces, with about 70 percent of her sales in the diaspora.
Skeptics expect limited impact on Palestinian society. Nader Said, a Palestinian pollster, said public discourse is crowded with issues seen as more pressing – mainly Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and other lands Palestinians seek for a future state. Respondents listing top concerns in a survey ranked women’s rights near the end, he said.
Abdelrahman, the activist, cheered on Mjalli.
“I am open to all things that will open up this dark closet that we prefer to hide in, pretending that everything is alright,” she said. “Let’s open it and see what comes out of it.”