For a window into the world of Babyfist, the Palestinian label launched by designer Yasmeen Mjalli in 2017, its Instagram account isn’t a bad place to start. Between the intimate portraits of local models wearing Babyfist pieces, you’ll also find images of the Palestinian landscape: from the grounds of Jericho to Beit Duqq, from the city of Beitunia to the youth culture hub of Ramallah. Here, models, both male and female—some in hijabs, some tattooed—pose wearing an array of embroidered hoodies and workwear-style jackets in bubblegum pink, plum, and aquamarine. In one image, a woman wears a bomber jacket embroidered with Arabic on the back; the words are by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and translate to “The strong ones are the beautiful ones.” In another image, a jacket has the circular emblem with the text “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” (“thorn” is written in Arabic), and a black long-sleeve tee reads, “Equality is the idea that are all equal regardless of sexuality, sex, race, or religion.”
Born to a Palestinian family who emigrated to North Carolina, Mjalli was raised in the United States and later attended college in the country. But when her family moved back to Palestine, Mjalli followed them. “My mom and dad moved when they got married to the U.S. and they lived there for two decades. They realized how Americanized their kids were becoming, and this huge imbalance between their American identity and their Palestinian identity,” she says. “They were like, ‘Let’s move our family back to finish this balance.’ I stayed behind, and after a few years, I followed them back to Palestine.”
Mjalli had never intended to create Babyfist, but the label was born out of the culture shock of returning to her home country. Unlike the suburban grounds of North Carolina, Mjalli was now living in a city, and she began experiencing street harassment for the first time. “It was my first time living on my own, and when you’re living in a city, you walk everywhere and you don’t have the protection of being in your car,” she says. “I’m sure if was living in New York or London, I would have experienced harassment.” As a response, Mjalli launched Babyfist, a label spotlighting the need for true gender equality across the globe. For her first design, Mjalli—who at the time was seeing “not your baby” pieces trending—created a “not your habibti” piece, making a sample from an old leather jacket that she then painted on. (Habibti means “baby” in Arabic.)
Later, Mjalli’s designs segued into tackling the subject of education around menstruation, furthering her focus on the policing of women’s bodies. “Menstruation isn’t part of the public school curriculum here in Palestine,” she says. “There are a lot of myths.” To start, she donated sanitary pads and held educational workshops, before eventually creating a T-shirt embroidered with “Bela 3eb,” meaning “without shame.” Mjalli explains that the word 3eb (“shame” in Arabic) specifically relates to deviant behavior, and is usually used to target women, “especially when they express opinions, or laugh too loud, or sit a certain way.”
Currently, all of Babyfist’s designs are manufactured in Gaza, where, as of 2019, the unemployment rate sits at 47%. For Mjalli, while this provides welcome jobs to Palestinians, there are issues of getting the product to buyers. To be shipped from Gaza to Ramallah, fabrics and materials have to go through a series of security checkpoints, and sometimes shipments are stalled because of border closures. Though it is a common conception that Gaza is completely closed off, commercial trucks are able to move in and out of the area; but if there are tensions between Palestine and Israel, checkpoints will often close. “We once had a truck full of jackets stuck for one month,” adds Mjalli.
While Mjalli has been working with her team in Gaza for two years, all communication between the two parties is done through WhatsApp. Mjalli has never been able to visit the Gaza factory, and while there are options to produce in other parts of Palestine, it’s important for her to produce her pieces in Gaza to make a contribution, however small, to reconciling the fractured state of the country. “We are living in a world where the conversation is shifting towards ‘who made my clothes.’ There is this demand for transparency and ethical production. When you order the clothes online, it comes in a plastic bag, at your doorstep, and you don’t have to think about the human chain that had to come together and bring it through your door,” she says. “We use the opportunity not only to humanize the process of clothing production, but to illustrate the political circumstances in how our clothing is produced, whether you are in Indonesia, India, or you’re in Palestine.”