The Arabic word Habibti (حبيبتي), derived from “hob,” (حب) or “love,” is used as a term of endearment in the Middle East and North Africa. The ending (ta marbuta or “tied” t) signifies that the word is directed at a woman. For Yasmeen Mjalli, “habibti” took on a different meaning when she moved to Palestine in 2016, where she was confronted by a surprising level of street harassment. “When I step out into the streets in Palestine, I am bombarded with lewd comments,” she said in an interview with AJ+.
The twenty-one-year-old activist has reclaimed “habibti,” in order to take a stand against street harassment, and created statement denim pieces, emblazoned with the words “Not Your Habibti.” “When I wear my Not Your Habibti, I feel invincible,” Mjalli said in the AJ+ video.
The denim jackets are sourced from Gaza and embroidered in the West Bank, with 10% of the proceeds benefiting the Palestinian Working Woman Society for Development. These pieces, along with her blog and other initiatives, can be found on her website, named “BabyFist.”
Journalists have been quick to see the initiative through the lens of #MeToo, calling Mjalli the “driving force” behind the Middle East’s “Me Too” movement. It is worth noting, however, that Mjalli spearheaded the initiative before the news of Harvey Weinstein broke, and that her work challenges the implication that feminism is not indigenous to the Middle East.
In many ways, Mjalli’s initiative is both global and local, representative of how women across the world are fed up with the gender norms of the past, yet grappling with the unique nature of sexism in a Palestinian context. It is the interaction between these two poles that makes her project compelling. “I coined this phrase both to draw attention to the rampant sexual harassment on the streets of Palestine, to craft an individual response to such harassment, and to build a family of support around something which affects us all,” Mjalli wrote in a mission statement on her website.
This process of “building a family of support” is where her initiative truly shines. Through socially-engaged projects, Not Your Habibti offers an opportunity for public discourse. In one series featured on her blog, Mjalli sat outside the Clock Tower in Ramallah, offering to listen and catalogue women’s stories of sexual harassment. She was surprised by some of the responses she received.
“Some women told me they had never been sexually harassed. Others told me it only happened in other parts of the world,” she wrote in a blog post.
In December, Mjalli brought the series to Bard College in Abu Dis, Palestine. In a blog post, she said that she “collected the most intimate and difficult stories of Not Your Habibti” there. As Mjalli recounted, for many of the girls who shared their stories, “For the first time, it wasn’t a matter of religion, honor, or respectability to share a story—it was now a matter of the freedom to move about the world safely and confidently.”
“I was going to school in a taxi. I was still 30 minutes from my destination when a 40 year old man got in and sat next to me. He started rubbing his balls and I was immediately uncomfortable. Then he started trying to touch me. So I asked him what he was trying to do and he said it’s fine you’re like my daughter. So I told him ‘fuck you and your daughter.’ I asked the taxi driver to stop the car and let me out even though I was still 30 minutes from the college. I waited for another can to drive by and took that.”
Feminism in Palestine has its own unique challenges – issues within the Palestinian parliament have delayed reform of the penal code, which provides insufficient protection from gender based violence, for example. Confronting sexism is also sometimes seen as secondary to fighting the Israeli occupation. As Mjalli wrote in a blog post, “We have been occupied for 70 years. Why do we keep waiting for occupation to end before tending to serious socio-cultural issues?”
With International Women’s Day around the corner, Mjalli solicited opinions on Instagram about what it means to be a Palestinian women. The responses (like the one below) give a glimpse into the crucial role women play in Palestinian society, and the fierce individuals leading the charge for women’s rights in Palestine.
“Being a Palestinian woman means you are born with bravery flowing in your veins.” – Taima, 13 Women on What it Means to Be a Woman in Palestine, BabyFist