Yasmeen Mjalli Is Not Your Habibti

07 May 2020
Cover Story, GQ Middle East Summer Issue 2020, Arabs, Palestinian activist, Baby Fist, Coronavirus, Covid-19, Lockdown, Self-care, Self Isolation, Ramallah, Palestine, GQ Middle East, Habibti, Yasmeen Mjalli, The GQ Middle East Summer Issue
The Palestinian activist and founder of Baby Fist is using her platform to challenge gender norms and help fight the coronavirus

“Not Your Habibti”: that’s the phrase that sparked momentum for Baby Fist, the Palestinian apparel brand that’s opened crucial conversations on gender-based issues in the region. The group, through its colourful and defiant tees, hoodies and jackets, raises proceeds for the education and advancement of Palestinian women. As the Coronavirus took hold around the world, Baby Fist manufactured and donated some 60,000 masks to the people of Gaza. The group’s 23-year-old founder, Yasmeen Mjalli, has been self-isolating in Ramallah, and musing about what the future of the movement could look like.

The region and the world are going through an extraordinary time. How has life changed in Ramallah?

We’re in isolation here. We have a 5 o’clock curfew. With Palestine, it’s a really unique circumstance – we’re always fighting a war on multiple fronts. We’re not only battling this virus and the spread of it, but we’re also battling continued harassment under military occupation, right? We had a healthcare system that was already a shambles, now it’s being stressed unimaginably because of constraints being put on us. For example, in Gaza, there’s 60 ventilators for two million people. Nothing’s being allowed in. It’s devastating to see that our attempts of dealing with this crisis, in a system that’s already pretty poor, are being multiplied in difficulty tenfold, under occupation.

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How did you go about manufacturing and distributing masks in Gaza?

Our goal was [to raise] $15,000, in an attempt to make 30,000 masks. We ended up raising double that, and now we’re making 60,000 masks. At this point, we’ve finished 40,000. We’ve partnered with the Palestinian Medical Relief Society…they’ve been working for the last two weeks to distribute the masks that we’ve donated. It’s been hugely rewarding for us and for them to be able to see that.

Tell us about moving from North Carolina to Ramallah with your family.

My whole life I’d never embraced my Palestinian heritage. I think that’s because of the environment that I had grown up with, which was a really conservative, Southern state with deep roots in racism. Subconsciously, I had pushed away my Arab identity, my Palestinian heritage, I refused to learn Arabic. I straightened my hair – even physically, I tried to embrace whiteness. It wasn’t until my very last year of uni that I started looking into Palestinian history, and I looked into the history through art. When I first got here, it was so difficult. Imagine your whole life growing up in the US, and you’re being told constantly, “You’re not from here, you’re not one of us,” whatever. And then I came back and everyone was like, “Where are you from? Because you’re clearly not from here.” It was realising and then struggling to accept that my identity is eternally going to exist in that liminal space between the West and the East.

What were those first few weeks like? Was there culture shock?

It was tough. I grew up in the rural South. If you wanted to get anywhere, you had to drive. I never had to walk anywhere, so I’d never been street harassed. But I’m sure if I was living in New York or Chicago or any city where you can walk, I would have been exposed to sexual harassment. I hadn’t experienced it until moving to the city of Ramallah. Suddenly, all day, every day, I was walking miles and miles and of course, I got exposed to sexual harassment. I was so heartbroken. I kept thinking, these are my people, this is my culture and it is also the source of my oppression as a woman. I could not reconcile those two things. I’m sure women all over the globe struggle with this, when they first start experiencing the reality of the patriarchy. That was really difficult for me: trying to reconcile my love for my culture and my heritage, with the reality that women were facing.

Baby Fist was created in part, as a response to those experiences, right?

The shock at all of this was coupled with the fact that most people that I was trying to talk to about it were brushing it under the rug. I’d go home and tell my mum. She was like, “3adi. No, no, don’t talk about that.” Even friends: cool, radical alternative friends were like, “No, this is how it is here.” And completely dismissing it. It felt like there was no space within which I could even express my frustration and my trauma. So, I decided to make my own space.

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When did you first get an inkling that Baby Fist would resonate with other people?

I made an Instagram account and posted a photo on International Women’s Day 2017, of this leather jacket I had hand-painted, super big, with the words “Not Your Habibti”. And people were going nuts over it. So I thought, ok, there’s a space here. Suddenly, I realised that everyone had a story... It wasn’t just me. There was just no place that we could unify our frustration and stories.

What were the most common things you heard when people were resisting your story and experiences?

I set up my typewriter project for the first time in Ramallah, in the city centre. That day, I think I recorded six different responses. The number one that shocked me was that, we need to deal with occupation first, and then all the other issues like women’s rights, education reform, environmental issues... that all comes afterwards. We’ve been occupied for 70 years. So, it’s like... how long do you want to keep pushing this back while women are being killed or abused? I think people need to open their eyes to the reality that you can never achieve national freedom until you simultaneously fight for women’s liberation. They’re very intimately interconnected. You can’t have one without the other. Likewise, women can never be liberated until national liberation is achieved. It’s got to be worked on in tandem.

Tell us about how Palestinians have been included in the process of growing Baby Fist.

I was painting these denim jackets that I was finding and thrifting from shops all over the country. It got to a point where I actually cleaned out every single thrift store – there was nothing left. I panicked. Someone reached out to me, and said they knew someone in Gaza who could manufacture them for me. That was the summer of 2017. We’ve been working together ever since. One of our biggest goals in the future is to open our own factory, which is just women-run, and women-led.

You’re on the West Bank – why manufacture in Gaza?

I like the obstacles that it presents. I know that’s really strange. From a business standpoint, it doesn’t really make sense. It makes more sense to manufacture in a factory here, where it’s far more stable. That’s where profit trumps community and solidarity. I don’t know why business and solidarity need to be mutually exclusive. We work in Gaza purely out of solidarity.

You’ve never been able to visit the factory in Gaza, right?

It’s all done remotely via WhatsApp and the phone. I’ve tried so many times to get a permit to enter Gaza. We have many expats that live here: white, European expats. And they come and go out of Gaza as they please. It’s almost insulting that Palestinians can not access Gaza.

How and why did menstrual education become a key part of your mission?

Every month, we wanted to dedicate funds to a specific cause within the community. One time it was clothing. One time it was school supplies and backpacks. Someone suggested that we could donate pads. We raised the money, we got the pads, and my team donated them. I had never seen people so energised. It was the first time we had seen direct impact. We didn’t just donate the pads – I asked the team to give a little workshop to the students about menstruation. They came back and said, “Within one hour, we saw change. We saw girls go from knowing nearly nothing about their bodies to knowing far more, and even being excited.” That was huge and we wanted to continue it. It’s been a year and a half.

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Have you seen gender attitudes evolve during your time in Palestine?

Since I’ve been working, I’ve been getting to know about a lot more initiatives. There’s countless organisations and cooperatives dedicated to advancing the status of women in Palestine. Last fall, we had a particular incident where a young woman was murdered at the hands of her uncle and cousins – that’s one of a few cases that happen every year. That incident was captured on video, it sparked outrage in a way that others hadn’t. That coincided with the launch of a grassroots community-based group, Tal’at. To see what they’ve been doing really gives me hope.They mobilised quite a large number of women – not just here in Ramallah, but in Gaza, in various villages, even over in Jordan.

Has COVID-19 opened your eyes to anything new or unexpected?

I think people would be grossly mistaken to look at this virus as just a virus. It’s the intersection of various systems that have established the framework that the world is facing right now. We’re not just dealing with a virus: we’re watching privilege manifest itself in unfair ways... This pandemic has exposed those cracks in the foundation of our society. They were there before, but now they’re glaring. Now, everyone is talking about this as an opportunity for us to take pause, to assess systems which have brought us here, and to ask how we can reform. What do we change from here? What does the future look like?

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Editor’s Note: This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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YASMEEN MJALLI (Founder & Creative Director, Baby Fist, Ramallah)

Photography by Prod Antzoulis