Last year, I co-founded Birdsong, an online marketplace for clothing made by women's charities and social enterprises in London and around the world. As a Palestinian woman from East Jerusalem, I often ask myself, what am I doing in London and why ethical fashion? To answer these questions I will tell you a complicated story full of contradictions. Hopefully by the end everything will fit together.
Welcome to Shufat
I grew up in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian side of the city. I don't think I knew the word feminism till I was 12 - that was the same year the Second Intifada started, so sadly women's rights were seen as secondary to the overall Palestinian struggle and the onslaught of violence. I did know that when my sister left the house there were teenage boys who stood on the street watching her and commenting about her looks and the way she was dressed. As I got older, I learned that there was an unofficial dress code for walking down the street in our neighborhood for women - otherwise you'll be harassed. Then later I learned that was nonsense as women everywhere get harassed and it has nothing to do with what they wear and everything to do with men being taught that this is acceptable behavior.
My Mother After the Nakba
My mother, is my first feminist hero(ine) though she hardly ever talks about her own struggle as a woman. She's from a generation that was taught that complaining gets you nowhere and the only way to improve your life is hard work. Born in 1950, she grew up under military rule in the newly established state of Israel. Her family had just been uprooted by the Nakba (Arabic word meaning catastrophe which refers to the forced exodus of 700,000 Palestinian Arabs due to massacres and forced deportations which took place during the Israeli War of Independence) and resettled in an abandoned Palestinian village nearby. They had curfews, needed permission to live the village and were forced to raise the Israeli flag in school.
Still my mother loved school. She loved math and would save up her allowance to buy books. The school in the village only went up to elementary (year six) so when she turned 11 my grandparents had to decide whether to send their kids to boarding school in Nazareth run by nuns. People in the village were wary to send their daughters away to a strange city so they didn't. My mom waited four years at home embroidering pillows, cooking, cleaning, tending to livestock, crops and looking after her younger siblings. She never stopped reading and never stopped dreaming of going back to school. Then one day, as though by magic everyone in the village decided it's ok to send the girls to Nazareth. My grandfather knew this was what my mother wanted and that it was the right thing to do, so even though she was a few years older than her classmates he encouraged her to go to the school.
This was only one of many struggles my mother went through before completing her PhD in Physics. When she finished her viva she wanted to work at a Palestinian University so that she could teach students from her own community. Sadly the university would only meet her if her husband came along and even then they were dismissive and disrespectful.
Being a Teenager in a Time of Intifada
My mother didn't care much for fashion- she's an elegant woman for sure but she never really understood my choice of outfits. Low waisted jeans, crop tops and heavy black and purple eyeliner on a teenage girl in our neighborhood seemed to her like unnecessary hassle. Needless to say as I teenager I could care less what she thought of my style (sorry Mama). Being the only Palestinian Muslim student in an all Jewish Israeli school in West Jerusalem, I had my own stuff to worry about. I was concerned with normal teenager stuff like getting good marks, fitting in and being cool. But also responding to comments like "You're so pretty, you look nothing like an Arab." "I love your outfits, do your parents know you dress like this? Does your mom wear a Hijab?" (Yes they do and no she doesn't wear a Hijab, not that it's anyone's business. Why are people obsessed with what Muslim women wear?) These comments were mild compared to chants of death to Arabs and suicide bombings that made life in Jerusalem a special kind of nightmare. I'm certainly a privileged and lucky person as all my loved ones are physically safe. Looking back on those days, after the 2014 Gaza War killing over 2,000 Palestinians and in the context of the current escalation, almost makes those times seem calm.
When I read the news today I get the same horrible feeling in my stomach that I did back when I was a teenager. This awful feeling that everyone and everything I care about can be destroyed and I am powerless to stop it. My feelings about Jerusalem are as complicated as ever. It's my home, the place where my family lives. It's the backdrop of my childhood memories and the place that made me who I am. As a Palestinian, our struggle against oppression feels like the most important thing. As a woman, our struggle for equality also feels like it can't wait.
Living in London, my perspective is massively zoomed out. I've met people from around the world and understand that Jerusalem is not the center of the universe. There are people everywhere with their own struggles. As a teenager, I had no idea where my cheap trendy clothing was made and how. Now that I know that between 85-90% of sweatshop workers are women and girls, I can't ignore it. When the Rana Plaza factory collapsed over 1,129 people were killed. Horrific manufacturing conditions aside, the way fashion is marketed to women is damaging to say the least. Through images we are taught that as women our looks our everything and the best way to look is skinny young and white.
There has to be a better way. What if fashion was a force for good? What if we used the creativity and beauty of fashion to express our identities and also empower women makers? That's why we started Birdsong. From Palestinian embroiderers working with Israeli seamstresses, to a sewing workshop in Malawi and all the way old ladies knitting in London, we're working with women to tell our stories. By bringing people together, I hope that in some small way we can make things better. That's why I started Birdsong. My mother didn't accept the reality she was born in. She worked hard to elevate herself and show what women are capable of despite what society told her. Those are the values she passed on to me. Birdsong wants to give women the chance to improve their lives and change their realities. That's what women need, a real chance, just like my mother.