Meeting the Druze women who make masks in the coronavirus age

"Most of our young Druze women want to go into hi-tech, not make hi-tech masks."

Crown Sewing Factory in Julis.  (photo credit: ELAD PEREZ)
Crown Sewing Factory in Julis.
(photo credit: ELAD PEREZ)
Virucidal. Metallic nano-particles. Proprietary zinc coating, whatever that means. These are the terms used to describe the Israeli cloth face mask I’ve been wearing for protection.
I follow the news: the mask has reputedly aced trials in German and Chinese laboratories pitting it against coronavirus. But to me, the most intriguing part of the story is that the masks are being created by an all-women cadre of Druze seamstresses in the Galilee.
Had we not been in lockdown I would have driven down from Jerusalem to the Galilee to watch. Instead I asked the Ramat Gan-based company Sonovia Tech to connect me by phone and wound up talking at length with two of the women quality inspectors in the Crown Sewing Factory in Julis. I wanted to know how the Druze women making these masks feel about their contribution to the national and international fight against coronavirus. Israeli virucidal masks are flying off the shelves in Miami, London, and Dubai, among many other international locations – some 150,000 outlets so far
I also appreciate the creation of additional jobs for this all-female workforce at a time of economic challenge. I pictured women in white veils producing hi-tech masks – although I was to learn that not all the seamstresses wear the traditional garb you see in the folklore photos. There’s a new generation of less dogmatic Druze women, too.
Once upon a time, the textile industry flourished in young Israel. Even 25 years ago, there were more than 45,000 textile workers – some 15% of all Israeli industrial workers. Globalization has whittled down the number to less than a quarter of that figure.
The Druze community has a proud history of handcrafts, and there are craft sewing circles that produce intricate embroidered designs, some of which you can see in the Druze Cultural House in Julis. Please note that this Julis, not to be confused with the Gaza town of the same name, is 24 kilometers south of the northern border, in the western Galilee. It’s unclear if the town and regional council were named for a certain Roman commander who camped in the area, or for the Arabic word for “sitting,” because it is lower than the hills of the surrounding villages, and thus seems to be sitting. In the War of Independence, the residents remained in their homes. Today, there are about 6,500 persons living there. Julis men serve in the IDF.
The Druze quality supervisor in the village of Julis was glad to talk, on the condition that I’d use an alias for her. Modesty still reigns. She said I should refer to her as “Sova.” More than four dozen Junis Druze women are employed full-time sewing in their local garment manufacturing factory. Others work in Peki’in. Until the coronavirus created the demand for masks, they were mainly making baby clothing, overalls and tiny trousers for the upscale Israeli international brand Nununu, the folks who made black and grey the new pink and blue in baby clothes around the world. They sewed hooded teddies and zip overalls.
BUT THEN the coronavirus struck and the women were approached to turn their sewing talents to mask-making.
“Masks are actually fun to make,” says Sova, 40, and a mother of three. “Druze women have a tradition of fine sewing, but we’ve seen major changes in women’s education in the last decade. You won’t find women in their 20s in the sewing workshops. Most of our young women want to go into hi-tech not make hi-tech masks.”
Indeed, the percentages of Druze at Israeli colleges and universities has tripled in the last two decades. Fully 65% of Druze university students are women.
That means that the women at the sewing machines are mostly mothers and grandmothers, from 35 to 65. They are a mix of religious and more secular women, some working without their draped head coverings, says Sova, who is also bareheaded.
“I’m traditional, but not religious per se,” she explains.
Each of the seamstresses puts in seven hours a day and is very serious about quality, she says.
”They sit distanced, so that those who want to can take off their own masks. There’s not too much talk because the work requires concentration.”
Bolts of polycotton impregnated with zinc oxide nanoparticles to repel bacteria and viruses are trucked to Junis from Ramat Gan where the scientists sit.
“It’s a team effort,” says Sova. “Certain women cut out the masks. Then we sew in the brand name and the ‘Made in Israel’ tags. Next we embed the metal nosepiece to shape the mask. We attach the bands – some around the neck and others around the head depending on the model – and then do the finishing. I check for cleanliness and tidiness, rejecting any soiled mask and making sure there are no stray threads. Each mask is checked again before we package it.”
Helping Sova and inspectors in Peki’in doing quality control is Zahava Najar, a Jewish grandmother who came out of retirement to assist in the project. Her 37 years of expertise spans much Israeli textile development. Born in Tunisia, Najar was raised on a farming community in the North. In those days, local textiles were taking off and she was hired by Delta Galil. Her first assignment was dealing with old-fashioned boxer shorts.
“We saw the industry grow to more sophisticated products, and then, when the peace accords were signed, our factories opened across the borders in Jordan and Egypt,” she said. She was dispatched there and later to European countries like Turkey and Romania. Her final assignment before retirement was supervising Israeli production in rural China.
“They were all good sewers but no one compares to the quality of these Julis mask-makers,” she says.
Before being recruited by Sonovia Tech, she turned down a possible job offer inspecting uniform production for the IDF.
“This is also a kind of war. I’m thrilled to be involved. We’re proud to be doing our part in saving lives,” she says.
Thinking of that makes wearing a mask less of a chore and more of a patriotic duty.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.