Yasmeen Mjalli, the 21-year-old social activist and founder of BabyFist, visited Boston College last Thursday to hold an honest and uncensored dialogue about the issues of street harassment, sexual assault, and gender-based discrimination within our society.
Mjalli started Not Your Habibti, an ongoing socially-engaged art project, out of the urge to dismantle the labyrinth of gender-based issues affecting Arab women and men throughout the world.
“I knew there was something here: a need to be met, an issue that needed to be addressed, and a community to be built,” said Mjalli. “I wanted to create a place of compassion and unconditional fond regard, with the conviction that deviating from the norm is to be celebrated.”
On International Women’s Day last year, Mjalli wore a denim jacket emblazoned with the phrase Not Your Habibti. In Arabic, the word habibti translates to “my dear,” which typically implies a sense of ownership.
“I felt the need of reclaiming myself and reinforcing the notion that I am not owned by anyone else,” she stated.
However, Not Your Habibti is not just a phrase. Because of BabyFist, it has become a community built as a means to shed light on destructive social constructs that dictate the lives of women and men around the globe.
“Every aspect of BabyFist is local and ethical," said Mjalli. "One of the most important things to me was being able to trace impact."
BabyFist invests in the local Palestinian economy by supporting the textile industry and employing women across the country to develop a sense of agency so that they can support themselves.
Furthermore, 10% of BabyFist’s profits are donated to the Palestinian Working Women Society for Development (PWWSD), which strives for gender equality and the eradication of all forms of gender-based discrimination.
Even though Not Your Habibti is rooted in Palestine, it is both a local and global initiative. It sheds light on the unique nature of gender-based discrimination in Palestine while still representing the injustice of pre-established gender norms around the world.
“I wanted to create a network of support, a family of women and men who would lift each other up in the midst of the issues we were all terrified to speak up about," said Mjalli.
However, it is through her Typewriter Project that she truly accomplishes her goal. This project takes the form of socially-engaged art, a medium which invites the collaboration of individuals, communities, and institutions to collectively create art.
Mjalli’s typewriter serves as an invitation for anybody to share their personal experiences dealing with sexual assault, street harassment, and gender-based discrimination. In doing so, the Typewriter Project encourages dialogue and raises awareness about the unspoken issues pervading in our society.
“It is kind of weird in this day and age for people to come together as strangers and connect over an issue,” said Mjalli. “Art, a social practice, is a creative act of defiance in that it challenges not only our definitions of art but the very makeup of our society today.”
Mjalli described how her Typewriter Project quickly grew beyond a tool of expression into a tool of analysis. The stories she typed gave her insights into both the way constructs were being upheld and the various ways that women reacted against them.
Sadly however, Mjalli noted, just as there were women willing to open up to her and share their stories, there were also women who were ready to criticize her.
“That was really hard. When something is so clearly an issue in the world, so inextricable from your daily experience, it comes as an awakening when you face people who deny all of that,” she said.
Mjalli argued that sexual harassment has become so common that people have normalized it. It is only when an extreme case, such as assault or rape, occurs that it becomes an issue worth discussing.
“I don’t want another day to pass, another woman to suffer, because we are terrified to disrupt the power structure and to shatter the fragile male ego upon which our society has been built,” she said.
Not Your Habibti revolves around unearthing the traditions used to confine women to limited ways of thinking regarding their own rights. Mjalli encourages members of the BC community to ask ourselves how we can create a safe space not only to talk about taboo issues such as sexual harassment, but also to heal and grow from them.
“There is solace in the collective voice which rings with the survival of brutality, isolation, and incrimination,” said Mjalli. “It is only through expression and dialogue that social change will occur, agency be reclaimed, and personal freedom gained.”