Women In Hebron resists the Israeli occupation, not only by remaining in the battered and bruised Hebron market as a vital and invigorating presence, and not only by serving as a beacon for the feminist struggle, but also by championing, promoting and celebrating a distinctive tradition of Palestinian embroidery…
Nawal Slemiah, founder of Women in Hebron, remarks, “I remind my daughter all the time, and the same with the other women, that you should follow the culture, you should keep the culture. That is a kind of resistance.” (Photo: Audrey Vera)
“Men can do something; Women can do anything.” Where, in the West Bank, would one expect to find a handmade purse for sale, embroidered with these words of feminist empowerment? Maybe in the progressive, cosmopolitan city of Ramallah? Actually, one will find such a purse for sale in Hebron, one of the most socially and religiously conservative places in the Palestinian heartland.
And indeed, one need only leave Women In Hebron and take a casual stroll in either direction of the bustling market, to see that every other shop, even if it sells women’s clothing and accessories, is run and staffed exclusively by men. This was the oppressive social norm that founder Nawal Slemiah, who lives in the nearby village of Idna, faced six years ago, when she arrived at the Old City to try to sell her goods in the market.
Today, Women in Hebron has established a female presence in the Hebron market, through which it facilitates the financial and spiritual self-sufficiency of women by promoting the work of their own hands. But when Slemiah first came to the market in 2006, it was not to start a feminist cooperative, but simply to sell her own goods: “I did [embroidery] myself first, in my home, in my free time. I collected many things, many designs, then I came here to the old city to find people to sell [to]. I got the shop very easy because [much of] the old city was closed [after the Second Intifada] and there was nobody in the shops, so I took it very easy.”
Slemiah became an entrepreneur as a way to overcome the economic difficulties that define the lives of countless Palestinian women. “I needed the money, and I always wanted my mother to give me the money to buy me something because my husband had no money, so I would go to my mother to take money from her. Then I started this project but nobody agreed to give me the money to help me to continue, so I started with 700 shekels and day after day I sold, and over time I got 10,000 shekels. Then I accepted more women to work.”
Hers is a success story highly atypical for the women of Hebron. In Hebron, as in many other conservative communities, women are financially dependent for all of their lives–first on their family, then on their husbands.
“That’s the problem,” Slemiah says. “[Society says that] she should listen to her husband, if he gives her money she can go somewhere, if not she can’t go anywhere. This is the problem with the women, they are very poor. Even sometimes they have money but they cant own this money, their husband holds it, they cant touch this money. I want women to be independent, I don’t want them to depend on their family or their husband anymore.”
In addition, women are often discouraged from leaving the home for extended periods of time, both because of social norms and by practical constraints such as lack of funds, lack of transportation, and the pressing need to take care of children and the household. Slemiah, and her sister Leihla, who co-runs the shop, travel to the homes of women in the community to collect purses, handbags, pillows, kafiyas and other homemade goods. They then sell these goods in the shop, and give the proceeds to the producers.
“When I give the money to the women,” Slemiah says, “they are very happy because they can buy their own things, they don’t need their husbands or their family to give them money. Some of them don’t even have family to give them money, so they were very happy when we give them money, they feel very strong because they can buy things for themselves.”
“Every women should know her rights, what to do, and also she should not forget her duties to society and her family and her husband. If I am working I should not forget my family also. This is what we tell them- ‘you should work and be independent, but do not forget that you have family, because then you make problems for yourself.'” Slemiah says.
However, she is firm that the women of Hebron and all of Palestine must rise up against institutionalized male oppression.
“I think its very important, all the women they should follow us. They should not listen to the culture, this culture, it’s bad for us. I know how it’s important to follow the culture, but sometimes it’s not culture, its just people who say [that] something [is] from a long time ago, so we have to follow them. We are not doing anything bad here, we feel that we are very ok. Not all the people understand, but many people do understand what we are doing here.”
Unfortunately, this message of economic and social empowerment for women often clashes with the conservatism of the Palestinian community in Hebron. In the five years of its existence, Women In Hebron has faced harassment on many levels. “Many times we faced hostility, me and Leihla, we are suffering a lot. Every day, especially from men and from women also. From Palestinians, I’m sorry to say but this is always the case, because we are the only women here. First, the young shebab, and men especially if they see internationals with us…”
Many women, Slemiah and her sister included, feel pressure from their husbands and families to stay away from the cooperative. “The women in my husband’s family”, with whom Slemiah lives in Idna, “they don’t like my work, they think I should stay with my kids because I leave my kids [at home, with family members]. They don’t like that, they say I should stay with my kids in the home, the money my husband makes is enough. But I was independent all the time before I get married, and then suddenly I was dependent on my husband after I get married, because I left my work. It wasn’t my style, for my life, to wait for somebody to give me money.”
The Palestinians who remain in the neighboring Old City are often harassed by soldiers and attacked by settlers. Soldiers survey the marketplace from rooftop watchtowers, sweep through its streets in midday raids, and close down its passageways with razor-wire roadblocks; settlers spit at the heads of its shoppers and salesmen from the heavily-protected windows and openings of their apartments and schools. Some settlers also drop dangerous objects–from knives to stones, to chairs, to water bottles filled with sand–onto the streets below, aiming for the Palestinian passersby.
Because of the dangerous environment, says Slemiah, “women and their families are afraid to join me here. Their family doesn’t like them to stay for a long time. If they come they come to take their money and give us the work and then leave. Because they always hear there are problems here [in the old city] so they are scared….settlers harass the people and the soldiers, so the people are afraid to come here….the settlers stop near my shop many times and harass me. It was very hard for me the first two years when I started, it’s still hard every day. But for us this is not problems, this is occupation. We don’t call these problems, we call it normal here. [And] even with all these problems, we will not close, we will not close. We have to have the shop here. Because if we close ourselves, many shops will close after us. Its very important for us to keep our city open.”
In addition to keeping a shop open in the Old City even though it is under a brutal occupation, Slemiah and the other women in the cooperative believe that their struggle for women’s empowerment goes hand in hand with the larger struggle against the Israeli occupation.
“If we don’t give women power,” Slemiah says, “they will not help to end the occupation. Women in Palestine are half the society, so they should share this act to end the occupation. The occupation will not be over in one click. You need a long time because we don’t have any power. The only power we have is inside ourselves, and women are part of the society.”
In contrast to those who believe that the struggle for women’s liberation within Palestinian society should wait until after, or should remain subservient to, the more important and overarching struggle to liberate Palestinian society as a whole from Israeli oppression, Slemiah remarks, “I believe that women should be strong first.”
“I can get the designs easy from my home, from my mother, from my grandmother, from my sisters,” Slemiah says. “We had a lot of things in our homes, so I took the old things and I used them new, and from my mind I can design [new patterns]. It’s the same as all the women in our village, we know how to do the embroidery. Its easy for us. It is traditional thing in Palestine, women in the villages have this tradition. We take it from our mothers.”
Upholding and fostering this culture strengthens not only the women, but the entire community in the face of the occupation. “I remind my daughter all the time, and the same with the other women, that you should follow the culture, you should keep the culture. That is a kind of resistance.”
In addition, selling homemade goods to internationals helps spread the image of a vibrant Palestinian culture that persists, survives and grows stronger in, through and beyond the Israeli occupation. Both in the Old City and through its website- http://www.womeninhebron.com- Women In Hebron is geared towards selling to internationals, because, in Nawal’s words, “…when we sell something to internationals we know that he is going to take it back to his country and tell his family, his neighbors, his friends that this is from Palestine, from Women In Hebron and he will tell the story…”
Women In Hebron stands, in the midst of one of the West Bank cities hardest hit by the occupation, as a testament to the resilience, courage and strength of the Palestinian people. “If I see the occupation,” says Slemiah with an air of confidence, “if I see the soldier pass, I don’t care so much about their guns. I feel angry when I see them with their guns, but also they are nothing, it is as if I didn’t see them. In my eyes they are silly people. They are strong because of their weapons, but we are strong in our mind.”
Full text of interview- http://freedpaly.wordpress.com/2011/09/25/interview-with-nawal-slemiah-founder-of-feminist-cooperative-women-in-hebron/