On a sunny afternoon in Ramallah, one might see Palestinian American women’s rights activist Yasmeen Mjalli perched in front of a black typewriter in the city center of the de facto capital of the West Bank.
“In Palestine, we all know the symbol of the typewriter,” the 21-year-old activist says, explaining her choice of accessory — a gift to her, from a friend.
“It’s what [the Israelis] used to give permissions so that we could enter and exit the country.”
But Mjalli isn’t granting permissions. She’s gathering women’s stories of sexual harassment and carefully typing them out on her antiquated machine. It’s part of an interactive project she’s calling #NotYourHabibti, a play on the Arabic word for “sweetheart,” a term that, all too often, is used in a denigrating way. In this case, she's saying, “not your sweetheart.” Mjalli invites women to break the taboos surrounding sexual harassment in the Palestinian territories by sharing their experiences with her; she types up what they say, keeping their identities private. Later, she posts their anecdotes on social media to make the women feel heard, and less alone.
“For me, typing each woman’s story is a way to allow her to start moving freely, in the streets,” she says.
Since The New York Times published allegations against Harvey Weinstein in October of last year, women around the world have rallied around the slogan #MeToo — calling out sexual harassment in the workplace across industries and in many parts of the world. The movement has resonated with some women in the Palestinian territories and the Middle East, and while Mjalli says she's excited about #MeToo, her project is fundamentally different in its interactive, in-your-face nature. (Check out a video of the project from BBC Arabic.)
“I’m engaging with people more; women are approaching me to be a part of a supportive and safe place,” she says of her project, which she hopes to bring to university campuses, cafes and other public spaces across Ramallah. “A hashtag is done from behind a screen; you don’t get to connect with the women and feel better and uplifted.”
Not only that, but Mjalli started #NotYourHabibti a few months before #MeToo took off, originally by painting the slogan on T-shirts and denim jackets sewn by women from across the West Bank and Gaza. She first took the slogan to the streets in October of last year, coincidentally timed with the rise of the #MeToo movement. She's hosted several events so far and has another dozen planned for the coming year.
“When I read about Ramallah in the news, I never imagined a young woman covered in tattoos, sitting with a typewriter, documenting tales of sexual assault and harassment,” Emma Jacobs, a British student who lived in Israel for nine months, tells PRI. During a visit to the West Bank, Jacobs had a chance to meet Mjalli and learn more about her projects.
“She’s a symbol of the future hope for an equality that could exist in Palestine.”
Other responses to #NotYourHabibti have been mixed. Some passersby ignore her; others dismiss her as a foreigner, despite her local roots. Others are intrigued by the novelty of the idea, but tell her that sexual harassment isn’t a problem here, or worse, that the women who have endured it brought it upon themselves.
But a handful sits down and tells her about what has happened to them. Some talk about their friends, daughters or other family members. Others speak candidly about themselves, expressing fear or shock or being unable to bring their attacker to justice.
“I’m engaging with people more; women are approaching me to be a part of a supportive and safe place.” — Yasmeen Mjalli, 21, women's rights activist
“It is a one-of-a-kind experience,” says Malk, a friend of Mjalli's who helps her translate the stories into English. She asked that her full name not be used.
“The stories you hear are jaw-dropping,” Malk continues. “One woman was harassed on the way to our booth — the police were right there, and they did nothing.”
In addition to highlighting women’s experiences, #NotYourHabibti has started impromptu conversations and garnered an unexpected fan base.
“I met this one woman, and she told me that women deserve to be hit ... So, I asked her if she thought she deserved to be hit — she said, ‘No, not me — other women.’” — Malk, women's rights activist
“I’ve seen 80-year-old men come up to us and say that last year they saw women as toys and objects — but now they see them as part of our society,” Malk says. “Another time, we met an 8-year-old boy from Gaza — he was so excited that we were trying to give his mom and his sisters their rights.”
However, not all responses are positive. “I met this one woman, and she told me that women deserve to be hit,” Malk says. “I asked her if she thought she deserved to be hit — she said, ‘No, not me — other women.’”
For Mjalli, she’s most struck by how many of the stories she hears are ongoing — and the lack of social resources available in the region.
“I had one young man share a horrible story on behalf of one of his friends — she can’t tell her parents because they’ll blame her and her honor, and now she is suicidal,” Mjalli says, recounting one of the stories that impacted her the most.
“One woman was harassed on the way to our booth — the police were right there, and they did nothing.” — Malk, women's rights activist
“He wanted to know how he could help her,” she says. “It is clear that, here in Palestine, we are lacking so many necessary resources — things like suicide hotlines and advice for domestic abuse victims.”
While Israeli violence against Palestinian women — activists and political prisoners are targeted, in particular — is widely discussed and documented in regional and international media, conversations surrounding sexual harassment, domestic violence and honor killings within the Palestinian territories are rare, creating the illusion that it isn’t a problem here.
However, this is far from the truth. While it is difficult to find accurate statistics — partially due to the taboo of these conversations, human rights organizations have documented that domestic violence and even honor killings persist across the West Bank and Gaza. Rapists and abusers across the region are rarely brought to justice.
“Often, the occupation is used as an excuse to hide social issues in Palestine,” Mjalli says, voicing the controversial opinion that Israel’s occupation may not be the root of all problems in the Palestinian territories. “It’s frustrating because we have so many social and economic issues of our own — but they all get swept under the rug.”
In addition to a dozen more #NotYourHabibti events scheduled for the rest of the year, Mjalli is currently organizing a women’s support group for some of the participants of #NotYourHabibti — an extension of the interactive nature of the project. As for the stories, she plans to post them on social media and print out each one to display in public spaces in and around Ramallah — her way of putting an end to the myth that sexual harassment is not an issue in the Palestinian territories.