Palestinian Activist Yasmeen Mjalli, Brings "Not Your Habibti" Project to Dartmouth
Last week, the Coalition for Israel-Palestine invited Yasmeen Mjalli, the 21-year-old Palestinian activist who is creating a space to encourage dialogue about gender inequality, sexual harassment, and assault, to Dartmouth’s campus. On April 9th, in a Haldeman classroom crowded with students and professors, Mjalli shared her journey as a social activist in the West Bank.
Mjalli first gained the world’s attention when she painted “Not Your Habibti” on the back of a denim jacket for an International Women’s Day Instagram post. “Habibti,” meaning “my dear” or “darling”, is a common catcall used on the streets of Palestine that implies ownership of or entitlement to the woman who passes by. After receiving several inquiries about Habibti jackets, Yasmeen began to sell them, taking denim coats and decorating them with the slogan by hand. This grew into an online store, BabyFist, where she has expanded her catalog into an entire line of socially aware fashion that is made by a women’s co-op in the West Bank. Still, the creation of BabyFist and its goal to shine light on harassment only brushed the surface of an issue that was more intricate and pervasive than she at first realized.
It was not until she returned to Palestine with her family, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina with a degree in art history, that she was truly propelled into activism. On the streets of her town, Mjalli had a personal encounter with harassment. When she reported the incident, the officers told her that they rarely received accounts like these. Street harassment and assault was not rare, but women were not coming forward with their experiences. Alarmed by this discovery, Mjalli set out to start conversations about the realities of Palestinian women who were subject to these forms of violence almost daily.
In Arab culture, as in many cultures, topics like these can often be taboo. Yasmeen explained that, with rigid gender roles and an emphasis on the responsibility of men to protect their female relatives’ “honor,” women don’t always feel safe talking about these topics openly. For many, the risk of blame for bringing on unwanted attention and possibly being ostracized or punished by family is too great. And women are not protected under the law either. Honor killings can receive lesser sentences or even go unpunished in some countries. Worse, when talking to her fellow Palestinian women, Yasmeen discovered that many were so accustomed to harassment that they did not even realize that it is, indeed, a form of violence.
In Yasmeen’s words, the Palestinian woman “exists despite herself.” In her own narrative, Mjalli has felt the weight of these words. In a conversation she had with a cab driver after returning to Palestine, the man remarked, “you don’t seem Palestinian.” When questioned, he went on to explain his estimation, saying that “the way you hold yourself very confidently, the way you talk to strangers, the way you make eye contact with me, the way you speak so loudly. This is not typical of a Palestinian girl.” His words encapsulated the pressures Mjalli constantly grapples with in defining what it means to be both Arab and a woman. Growing up entailed learning what she could and could not do as a “good Arab girl”; she had to learn how to subdue herself. Meanwhile, her male counterparts were free to do whatever they pleased.
Throughout her talk, it was hard not to notice the abundance of tattoos on Yasmeen’s body. They were a physical manifestation of her rebellion, even covering her hands–the one part of a woman’s body that can be seen when wearing an abaya. These tattoos are her way of rejecting traditional Arab standards for women. They’re her way of reclaiming her body in the face of others’ attempts to define her, her ethnicity, and her identity. On BabyFist’s blog, Yasmeen writes often about shedding the norms that she deems to be constrictive to the Arab woman.
In an art project called “Not Your Habibti: A Typewriter Project,” Mjalli tackles these issues of gender inequality, street harassment, and assault more extensively. Armed with a typewriter and a welcoming demeanor, Yasmeen plants herself in public spaces and invites people to share their stories and experiences. What started on the streets of urban Palestine, chiefly Ramallah’s city center, has now become a global mission. The typewriter has traveled as far as Italy and, now, arrives in the United States. On April 10th, Mjalli brought “Not Your Habibti” to the basement of Collis. Perched on a high chair just outside of Collis Market, people came and shared their stories with her over the course of five hours. And the project will not stop here. Mjalli plans to visit several other colleges in the United States as well. Still, her focus remains on the liberation of women in the West Bank. She is dedicated to ensuring that their voices are heard.
When the floor opened for questions after Yasmeen’s presentation, one of the audience questions, in particular, stuck out to me. A student had asked what Yasmeen felt was a good way to combat harassment and assault on college campuses, referencing the controversial night of solidarity in which greek houses closed their social spaces on the night of April 13th. She responded that her favorite part of Not Your Habibti is the creation of dialogue that comes from inviting people to share their stories and putting them in a public space (Yasmeen is careful not to share the identities of those who tell their stories). She suggested that finding a way to stimulate real discussion like this could be helpful on Dartmouth's campus.
In the days following Yasmeen’s visit, I spoke to Sumner Matthews ‘20, a member of Coalition for Israel-Palestine who helped bring Yasmeen to Dartmouth. Over e-mail, we discussed why she was so drawn to Yasmeen’s mission. “She is the intersection of everything the world needs right now,” Sumner remarked. “She strives to empower women; she listens; and she advocates. Yasmeen’s time on this campus was beautiful and powerful.” Hearing Sumner’s enthusiasm, I expect that many others who came to hear Yasmeen speak or shared their stories with her felt impacted in the same way.
There seems to be great power in unearthing truths and making them public. It is one thing to have a general knowledge that issues such as sexual harassment and assault exist on college campuses, but it’s another thing to completely grasp the pervasiveness of sexual violence in a tangible way. Colleges across the U.S. are attempting to do just this. Last year, signs accusing students of rape and assault were placed around the campuses of Spelman College, Morehouse College, and Clark Atlanta University–three historically Black colleges–in an effort to hold members of these communities and institutions accountable. As students become fed up with their college administrations brushing cases of sexual violence under the rug, the use of public spaces will continue to function as a tactic for bringing these issues to the forefront of campus politics and people’s minds.
In this way, Yasmeen Mjalli’s work in the West Bank is inspiring and a powerful model for college students around the world. At just 21-years-old, she has courageously and passionately stepped into the role of social activist and is attempting to shatter ideas and traditions that have been maintained for generations. Beyond this, Yasmeen is teaching us “the power of listening and sharing,” as Sumner puts it. She has reminded us that allowing voices to be coerced into silence can only protect the structures that perpetuate these circumstances. Perhaps, Dartmouth’s campus could benefit from taking a page out of Yasmeen Mjalli’s book and learn how to create spaces that center the valuable voices of victims and empower them to speak up and for themselves.