RAMALLAH, West Bank — A young Palestinian-American is the driving force behind a nascent #MeToo movement in this patriarchal corner of the world, selling T-shirts, hoodies and denim jackets with the slogan “Not Your Habibti (darling)” as a retort for catcalls, and writing down women’s complaints from her perch in a West Bank square.
Yasmeen Mjalli wants to encourage Palestinian society to confront sexual harassment, a largely taboo subject.
“What I am doing is to start a conversation that people are really afraid to have,” said Mjalli as she put her merchandise on hangers in a clothing store.
The 21-year-old has faced backlash from conservatives and from some activists who say fighting Israeli occupation is the priority for Palestinians.
Her parents, who grew up in a Palestinian farming town, immigrated to the United States and returned to the West Bank five years ago, weren’t pleased, either.
“To be able to have peace with them, I have to check my feminism at the door, which is very difficult because that’s really who I am,” said Mjalli, who moved to the West Bank last year, after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a degree in art history.
Mjalli and other activists say that starting a conversation about sexual harassment doesn’t mean copying the #MeToo movement in the United States, where victims are speaking out in growing numbers.
Cultural differences require a different approach.
Women across the Arab world have made strides toward equality, outnumbering men in many universities and joining the work force in growing numbers. Yet they struggle to break free from the constraints of patriarchy.
Traditional Arab societies assign rigid gender roles, with men as guardians of their female relatives’ “honor” — effectively a ban on male-female friendships or sex outside marriage. Women violating those rules risk being ostracized or — in extreme cases — being killed by male relatives, who count on leniency from the courts.
Rules are looser among urban elites. But even in Ramallah — the most liberal West Bank town with many Western-educated Palestinians and foreigners — women watch their step.
Women risk getting blamed if they complain, said Wafa Abdelrahman, who runs a closed Facebook group for female journalists. “The blame will be, ‘for sure, you did something wrong or you gave the wrong signal, the way you dress, the way you talk’,” she said.
University student Nadine Moussa, 22, said women know the trouble spots.
“I never ever walked in the city center of Ramallah without being harassed verbally, but I don’t face that in the neighborhoods,” she said, adding that her co-ed campus is relatively safe.
Palestinian police receive few complaints about street harassment, said spokesman Loay Irzeqat. He believes some women fear unintended consequences, such as male relatives attacking accused harassers.
Police mostly deal with online harassment, with about one-third of some 2,000 electronic crimes cases in 2017 revolving around men blackmailing women for sexual or financial gain, he said. Typically, extortionists threaten to publish photos deemed compromising, such as showing a traditional woman without her headscarf.
Women lack legal protection, despite improvements such as the establishment of a police sex crimes unit, said Amal Kreishe, founder of the Palestinian Working Woman Society for Development to which Mjalli donates some of her proceeds.
Reforms of the penal code have been held up by the collapse of Palestinian parliament as a result of a decade-old split between President Mahmoud Abbas’s West Bank autonomy government and the Hamas group in Gaza. Abbas has ignored appeals to change the code by decree in the meantime.
“All the talk about women’s equality and rights is lip service,” said Kreishe.
Still, Kreishe has witnessed gradual changes. More women seek counseling from her group, which has referred about 200 complaints to police over the past two years — compared to a few dozen in previous years.
Across the Arab world, the prevalence of street harassment varies.
In Egypt, it remains widespread despite pushback from civil society and a 2014 law threatening up to five years in prison. Cairo has been described by some as the world’s most dangerous mega city for women.
In the conservative Gulf Arab region, street harassment is relatively uncommon in smaller countries where religious and tribal codes restrict interactions between unmarried men and women.
In Saudi Arabia, it has become an issue of debate, as women prepare to drive for the first time this June, following the lifting of a government ban. In recent years, several videos went viral showing Saudi women in long black robes being heckled by men. Saudi King Salman has approved legislation criminalizing sexual harassment.
In the West Bank, Mjalli is pushing boundaries with what she calls “typewriter events.”
On a recent day, she sat behind a table in Ramallah’s Clock Square, taking notes on a typewriter — chosen over a laptop as an attention-getter — as women sitting across from her shared stories about harassment. The event was also meant to generate support for passing laws protecting women, she said.
Her idea of designing clothes with a feminist message goes back to college.
At the time, she decorated her denim jacket with “Not your Habibti,” a take on the popular “Not Your Baby” slogan that reflected her Arab roots. Mjalli posted a photo of the jacket online last year for International Women’s Day, stirring interest from potential buyers.
For a few months, she bought, transformed and sold second-hand jackets. In August, she launched her business, Baby-Fist, with workshops in Gaza and the West Bank making T-shirts, hoodies and jackets.
Mjalli estimates she has sold close to 500 pieces, with about 70 percent of her sales in the diaspora.
Skeptics expect limited impact on Palestinian society.
Nader Said, a Palestinian pollster, said public discourse is crowded with issues seen as more pressing, mainly Israel’s control of the West Bank and other lands Palestinians seek for a future state. Respondents listing top concerns in a survey ranked women’s rights near the end, he said.
Abdelrahman, the activist, cheered on Mjalli.
“I am open to all things that will open up this dark closet that we prefer to hide in, pretending that everything is alright,” she said. “Let’s open it and see what comes out of it.”