A stitch across time and borders

Traditional local-style embroidery has become a major resource for empowerment for Palestinian women.

stitching 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
stitching 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Hala Jahshan picks up an embroidered woman's change purse that says "women can do anything," and laughs. "Arab women cannot do 'anything' - at least not in an official way," she quips from the Melia Palestinian embroidery cooperative she manages near the New Gate in Jerusalem's Old City. "But even Muslim women in the little villages find a way to do what they want; they are smart," she says. On her regular travels across the West Bank to collect scores of colorful, hand-stitched fabrics from networks of hundreds of Palestinian women trained by Melia, Jahshan listens to the stories women workers tell of their struggles against patriarchy from within their society and from Israeli security road blocks and travel restrictions that they say have left many of their husbands out of work and stressed. But the stories are often underscored by optimism, she says. Back in the Jerusalem store, after the painstakingly embroidered fabrics are fashioned into bags, pillowcases and other home items, the work is sold at fair market prices that go back into the pockets of the previously impoverished women in the field. A seemingly unlikely tool in difficult times, traditional local-style embroidery has become a major resource for empowerment for Palestinian women to participate in the workforce and in family decision making, via a return to traditional handicrafts. In the past, Palestinian women embroidered their own clothes and household items, like pillow covers, but rarely to generate income, explains Nora Kort, president of the Arab Orthodox Society, and founder of Melia: "It's not like 'feminism' in the West, but it is a feminist trend for women to realize their power, to be active and economically independent." Melia has also trained hundreds of teenage girls during the summers, a fact she called very significant to Palestinian society. "During the intifada, more girls dropped out and more married young," she said, explaining that men at the heads of households had a harder time feeding their children and might have pulled their daughters out of school and married them as early as 14 to have "one less mouth to feed." "When a girl produces an income, her chances of not getting married young improve; her chances of studying longer improve," she said. "And if the mother has an income, she has more say about family matters." ACROSS ISRAEL and the West Bank, growing numbers of such small businesses and non-profit organizations to empower poor and marginalized women have been launched in recent years; and for International Woman's Day this week, a number of them joined forces for the first time. Organized by the American women's organization Peace X Peace (pronounced peace by peace), some 20 Israeli and Palestinian women involved in women's empowerment activities met-up at Jerusalem's American Center to network with each other and with American women via video-teleconference to Washington, DC. Networking is more than just an exchange of information, skills, history and experience, it leads to a "shift in perception and relationships that change our actions," explained Peace X Peace director Patrician Smith Melton, from Washington. Using the Internet, Skype and video-teleconference, Peace X Peace introduces women around the globe, from the United States to Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Jordan, to share their personal stories of dealing with anything from marriage and parenting to economic problems and local epidemics, political struggles and ecological disasters. The goal is a support, encouragement, learning and activism network - woman to woman - that will lead to mutual benefit, personally and officially. "Women are moderating forces between extremes and are doing work on the ground. This knowledge started to seep into the power structures, as we change systems from inside and build new social systems," Smith Melton said. In Jerusalem, staring at the wall-size screen with amazement, several of the local women agreed that learning from the American women would be helpful, but sharing personal information and developing emotional and personal ties first makes it easier to see the American women as friends with common concerns, before talking about professional and official issues. From the US circle, one woman responded that personal relationships with women in other countries were beneficial to them as well. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, her bonds with women in Nigeria were very comforting and supportive, she said. To encourage such support networks for women's empowerment and peace, Peace X Peace's Israel coordinator, Elana Rozenman of Jerusalem, presented awards to one Israeli and one Palestinian. Israeli recipient Lena Gurary, director of the Tel Aviv-based non-governmental women's organization Supportive Community, got the crowd laughing when she agreed that women had critical diplomatic skills, recalling an Israeli stand-up comedian who always says that men negotiate and women cooperate. Before the event, she told The Jerusalem Post that she has networked with Israeli Arabs, and was excited to network for the first time with Palestinian and American women. "We decide to learn from every person we meet or not; we can learn from their experiences and the interaction," she said. The business development center for women she co-founded gives consultation, advice, training and networking for female small-business owners and for low-income women. Palestinian recipient Rula Salameh, project coordinator for the Palestinian organization Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy, or MEND, said women have unique skills to connect over shared issues of mother and sisterhood, and to teach society how to accept, listen to, respect and deal with "the other." "West Bank Palestinians need a lot of training; it is not a shame to say we need communications with the international world and Israelis to learn skills," she said. "We need to communicate to learn." MEND, founded by Lucy Nusseibeh for leadership training and advocacy for Palestinian society, is one of the few Palestinian organizations to demand female participation on the executive and board levels, she said. "Because of the Palestinian situation, many women were forced to stay in the house; sometimes there are problems with families, brothers, who want them to just take care of the kids, the house and to be nothing. When we opened in the West Bank we went to the key contacts and power - these were mostly men - but we changed that. Now there are 50 [percent] women on our steering committee." The women from a broad spectrum of Palestinian and Israeli organizations exchanged phone numbers and said they hoped to meet again; some for professional networking; some for personal support, encouragement and learning; and a few, like Lozan Aweidah from Gaza, now living in east Jerusalem, said she had exchanged telephone numbers with an Israeli woman to teach her Arabic in exchange for Hebrew lessons. BACK AT Melia the next day, Hala Jahshan is feeling good, even though business is slow in the Old City. "I was very happy yesterday at the meeting. It is really important for a woman to share and listen to what others are thinking; to learn from them, to grow and not stay as she is," she says. She remembers her life before volunteering, when working and networking in the community taught her to feel better about herself and embrace a more assertive relationship with her traditional husband, who had hesitations about women working outside of the home. "I used to get depressed, sometimes I didn't even want to change my dress or wash my face. When I started volunteer work my husband was against it, because I was [like] his secretary and he needed my help. He said 'we are simple people and don't need extra money,'" she explains. "But by an uprising of love and patience and not fighting, my smart way made him understand work is important for me, not just for money. I told him I need it for my character, my emotions, I told him I am a human being. "We have to fight for our rights with love - not force - and to shout with words - not violence - for peace, and our children will learn from this example," she says. "When a woman has separate economic power, she will have more power in her family and community. It changed my life and now my husband supports and respects my work." Networking between women, regardless of religion, language or nationality, is key towards this end, especially in difficult times, she adds. "Women are women regardless of where they come from. When I know them personally I will love them more. That's why private relationships are more effective than official ones; and why women can start peace in the home. That's why we like to say that our store is not just about selling, but is a center for love and peace, where Muslims, Christians and Israelis can talk about our needs for love and peace, peace with justice." When she tells her theories of love and peace and networking to some of her embroiderers from poor villages in the West Bank, they sometimes reply "feed me and then I will talk about peace." And that, she says, is exactly what's happening, as women put their heads together. Behind her, Rajha Jabarin from El Sayeer in Hebron is embroidering finishes on a change purse after an order from a customer to add gold embroidery around the phrase "women can do anything" on a wallet for emphasis. Though the motto dates to a 1995 international women's convention, according to local tradition, Palestinian embroidery motifs have been around as long as Palestinian culture itself. Nora Kort said she looked for a store to market the wares in the Old City, where the ancient stones would reflect the cultural heritage of the embroidery. Palestinian girls have always learned from a young age to embroider, and in better days, the girls and their elders used to sit outside embroidering together, the old teaching the young, as a socially bonding rite of passage. Embroidery was so important to a woman's status that Palestinian costume scholar Jehan Rajab has argued that historically, prospective brides were not only assessed on character, health and looks, but on embroidery, as a reflection of her personality. Palestinian embroidery is unique because each motif and color choice reflects a particular village or area's heritage and a woman's status. For example, says Kort, darker blues may indicate a woman is a widower, especially in the Hebron region, and more embroidery indicates a higher class. According to Rajab, Jerusalem embroidery was always more eclectic because of the inflow of pilgrims and officials; Ramallah was primarily red silk patterns on white, using motifs such as geometry, cypress trees and tall palms. Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour used a lot of silver and gold satin and silk threads. And Hebron produced the most intricate and colorful designs covering more of the outfits. Beersheba, Gaza and the Negev Beduin areas were also embroidery centers. With the influx of internationals passing through Palestinian cities during the Ottoman period, Palestinians in some areas incorporated foreign elements from international and Turkish trends. Red remains a favorite thread color today across the West Bank and Gaza, symbolizing passion and heritage or brotherhood. Scholars like Rajab explain that diverse trends developed simultaneously because villages were largely disconnected from each other, until later migration and displacement following the advent of modern technology and the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel. DESPITE THE art's popularity and significance, an old Palestinian proverb from the Nablus and Jenin areas says that embroidery means unemployment. The saying is explained that although Palestinian Arab women have always embroidered and helped out agriculturally, the intense agricultural demands of that area meant females worked more in the field and wore much less ornamental outfits. But today, the proverb has taken on a new meaning, as Palestinian women reinvent the meaning of the ancient art. Though the making of embroidered traditional clothing is expensive and time-intensive and fell from fashion in urban areas, among the young there is a revival. "The young now wear it for special occasions again, it's not practical for every day or in style, but has become a new expression of identity," says Kort. "I come from a family who never wore any Palestinian dress, but now I have some that I made; I wear them when I travel to show solidarity and pride." Networking with Israelis and internationals also supports the art, as they buy the work at fair prices, create demand for more and support other such cooperatives. "Sharing art is also a form of networking," says Jahshan. "People can learn about Palestinian heritage through embroidery and we can all learn from each other by sharing and listening to each other's stories. I can learn about business but also about human relationships."