Yasmeen Mjalli

April 30, 2018

Mandana Vakil

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Yasmeen Mjalli is a Palestinian-American feminist, women’s rights activist and social entrepreneur. Recently, I had the privilege of sitting down with her.

Fresh out of college with an art history degree, Mjalli moved to Palestine, where she brought to life her start-up, BabyFist. The label began with one denim jacket, on the back of which Mjalli painted a flower surrounded by the words “Not Your Habibti.” The aim was to express herself freely in a community that repressed individual expression. The picture of it she posted on Instagram would grow into a company that impacts women all around the world. Her fashion design sends a clear feminist message and is a cathartic expression of her frustration with her life in Palestine.

Mjalli’s US Tour spanned university campuses. Prior to Brown, she visited Dartmouth, Harvard, Wellesley and Boston College. She concluded at Tulane and Emory with plans to make the rounds again soon. The HeForShe organization at Brown hosted Mjalli’s “Not Your Habibti” Project – an initiative which encourages women to speak out about sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination.

At a dinner with students, Yasmeen sparked a unique discussion about the prevalence of gender inequality. Her project creates a space in which women are free to give testimony about their experiences and to address issues that many are not aware of. In this way, she creates the opportunity to change the world, one jacket at a time.

My conversation with Yasmeen was illuminating, as she expressed new perspectives on issues in the modern world.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I’m a feminist, women’s rights activist, and I’m also a social entrepreneur. I currently live in Palestine and have been for the past year and a half. I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina and every year of my life, since I was born, I would spend three months of the year in Palestine. I was always sort of simultaneously here and there. When I finished university, it felt natural to move to Palestine – my family was already based there. I joined them and through a series of events I started my company – my start-up – BabyFist. Shortly thereafter, I took up women’s rights issues and started addressing them through the lens of art, but also through that of fashion.

What inspired you to start Baby Fist?

I come from a small community in North Carolina, so I never actually experienced sexual harassment before moving to Palestine. [Palestine] is a big city. I experienced sexual harassment on a daily basis. I couldn’t leave the house without someone staring at me or saying something that would clearly make me uncomfortable. Pretty quickly, it started affecting my personality, my happiness, and the way I interacted with people. I became depressed – I wasn’t the smiling, conversational person that I used to be. I was angry, removed, and then pretty quickly I started to change the way I looked. The outfits I wore were designed to minimize attention. It got to the point that I stopped feeling like who I truly was.

When I painted that first ‘Not Your Habibti’ jacket, it was so empowering because it felt like the jacket was a tool that worked to transform and reclaim my body. I began using fashion as a form of expression rather than using it like a shield to disguise my body… That was really cool.

I posted a picture of it on Instagram, which instantly went viral – people were DM-ing me asking, “how can I get this jacket?”, “did you make this?”, and “I want one.” I started making them to order: if you wanted one, I would make you one and you would pay me.

It grew from there. I was making like 50 jackets – hand-painting them. It took me four hours to paint each one. Eventually, I decided I wanted to make this a company, so that I wouldn’t be doing any of the painting myself. Instead, I wanted to spend my time engaging in social entrepreneurship and fostering social change. I launched the company and I started making my jackets in Gaza. Since I wasn’t painting anymore, that gave me the time work on social impact. I really wanted to start having a conversation amongst Palestinians and amongst Arabs about feminism and what it means to be an Arab feminist, and if those two concepts are mutually exclusive. That led me down the road to what I do now: The Typewriter Project. I guess you could say I just combined the forces.

Do you think that painting that first jacket, and expressing all those feelings that you had buried inside through art and through fashion, helped you out of that tough period in your life?

This might sound cheesy, but I am actually the happiest that I have been in my whole entire life. You know it’s one of those situations, in which you grow up and your life is entirely shaped by gender norms and restrictive perceptions of what it means to be a woman. And you don’t know it! When I graduated from college and suddenly didn’t have the distraction of school anymore, I was able to stop and reflect on how I was raised. Once I saw it, it was impossible to un-see that I actually grew up in a really sexist world, that my opportunities were limited and that people’s ideas of what I was capable of in this world were limited. That wasn’t okay. I felt really alone, and I thought that I was experiencing and realizing something that nobody was really talking about. When I did try to talk about it, people would laugh it off or brush it off. I wasn’t taken seriously.

It’s a very sad feeling – to feel like you’re the only one, that no one else understands you. I wanted to build a community… That was one of the biggest reasons that I started the vlog, Instagram page and Typewriter project. For the first time, I could actually talk to people and connect with them, feel vulnerable without feeling afraid that my opinion wouldn’t be accepted. Now I have this amazing community of both women and men all over the world from Italy to Palestine to the US [to] Singapore, Germany, Portugal, South Africa. People have reached out to me to share their story and to thank me for doing what I do. I have never felt so supported in my life and that’s because of this company and this movement.

How do you think that fashion works to create social change and what has it looked like in your experience?

We live in a world where fashion is one of the best ways to communicate a trend. We see trends come and go all the time and they usually revolve around fashion. It makes sense that in order to start a conversation, you should use fashion as a tool.

Additionally, it was…symbolic for me…For the first time, I got to do something in which an item of clothing wasn’t used to [protect my body] from the world; it was rather used to express something about myself, to make me feel really comfortable in my body and to reclaim what it meant to be a woman in love with fashion and in love with herself.

I checked out some of your designs online and I was wondering what inspired you to use flowers so often?

(Laughs) I don’t know. I love flowers. The poppy flower was always really symbolic for me. I didn’t know this, actually. I studied the history of art – I really love the art world, I love understanding the world through art. One of the things that I kept seeing as a recurring theme in was the poppy flower. I don’t know why. It just kept standing out to me as a symbol of resilience. I found out later that the Palestinian State flower is the poppy flower. That made me feel even more connected to it. It felt really like the right thing to do was to take that and to set it in a feminist context – this flower that symbolizes resilience but within the female struggle. I also looked at [the countless other] Arab streetwear brands… and now I see that my designs stand out because of the flowers. That’s kind of cool.

I know that you’re currently on your US tour. How do you think that travelling to all these universities has enriched this project?

It has been incredibly eye-opening. Coming from the Middle East to the US, you almost expect there to be a difference in the type of stories that you hear, and in a lot of ways some of the most horrifying stories have been here – not that it’s worse here. Other stories, I feel like they could have been said by a Palestinian girl. Literally, if I give you all the letters that I have compiled thus far and ask you to put them on a map, you wouldn’t be able to.

I mean, it’s just amazing because the stories transcend national borders, they transcend race, they transcend culture, they are universal. That is really kind of beautiful because in this world, with the politics and power dynamics that we have, it’s easy to say that Arabs are barbarians. That is not the case. I have heard stories from women who are Nigerian-American or Mexican-American or Puerto-Rican-American, or Ecuadorian-American or Italian – all of them transcend race and transcend culture. At the end of the day, women’s struggles, and gender struggles, are universal.

I know that you are going to exhibit these stories in many locations. One of the places mentioned was Poland, and that was quite surprising to me. How did that come about?

A woman reached out to me from a cultural center in Cracow. She is hosting an exhibition in September featuring 40 minority artists from all over the world – Mexico, South Africa, Palestine. We [were invited] to share artwork. At that point, I didn’t have anything to share. Her invitation was actually how I came up with the ‘Buried and Freed’ Exhibition.

What has been a hardship that you have had to overcome in the Typewriter project and in starting up your business?

They are totally two different things. Starting up the business… well, I never studied fashion. I didn’t know anything about the industry. One of the hardest things for me was figuring out how to create a project and bring it to the market. I didn’t know about samples, I didn’t know about prototypes. I didn’t know that there were different quality levels of sewing and printing. Almost all of it was trial and error for me. I was lucky to have a customer base that believes in the cause that I am fighting for. They were really patient in waiting for me to figure it all out and get this product out. A lot of it is still trial and error, since I am doing it all on my own, you know?

In the Typewriter project, though, a big obstacle was having people take it seriously. I think that society, whether American, or Italian, or Palestinian,… tends to brush issues of gender-based discrimination, or oppression, or sexual assault, under the rug. We don’t want to talk about it. It’s taboo, or it doesn’t happen, or “I’ve never experienced it”, which is just not true. We don’t know how to talk about it. It’s very difficult or painful for people to even think about it. So, one of the biggest obstacles is just getting people to talk to me. Not only [to] open up, but [to] understand that it’s necessary and really important.

What do you think that I, or the next person at Brown, or anyone in the world really, can do to affect social change within our respective communities?

I think that on an individual level it can just be doing…what I do. You don’t have to have a typewriter and write letters. I’ve been in the US only for a week, not even, and I cannot tell you how many girls have told me: “I didn’t even know that I had a story that I could share until I learned about your project.”

In society, we don’t create a space in which someone can talk without being interrupted. How often do you talk to someone and you just let them speak, [to make] them feel like they [can] open up? When I do this Typewriter project, it’s just me typing. I’m not interrupting. I’m just letting you talk and open up. People get so emotional because they are not used to being listened to, and suddenly they have a whole world of things to deal with that they didn’t even know about and they thank me. On an individual level, I think the best thing that we can do is just listen and let people talk and feel that their voice has value.

What does your work with the PWWSD entail? I know that a portion of your proceeds go to them…

This is actually something that I would like to do more of. Luckily, I am building a team right now to organize workshops for them. I want to be more involved. Right now, the entirety of my relationship with them is purely based on funds, donations. I am working on designing a workshop that will take place at the end of July that I am really excited about. It’s our first one!

To wrap this up a little, are there any upcoming projects, except for the workshops, that you are currently working on or planning on doing?

Honestly, when I first did this project in October of 2017,… I didn’t think that I was ever going to do it again. I thought it was a one-time thing, a statement. Then, I thought I would come to the US and that that would be it. Now I am in the US and we are already planning a second tour in the spring because so many universities have started reaching out… We’re like: “Okay, clearly this can go bigger.”

At each university, I can only talk to so many people. It feels like I only ever scratch the surface. I feel like it’s worth continuing this project and I feel like it can grow so much. Of course, the workshops are a big plan for the future. I am building a team, like I said, which will help make these workshops come to life in Palestine, maybe in the US, in the Arab world. I would really like to see that grow – the social impact.

Thank you very much. It was an honor to speak with you and learn more about your work.

Thank you.