Interview with Nawal Slemiah, founder of feminist cooperative Women In Hebron

Last week, myself and Skylar, another ISMer, went to the Old City of Hebron to interview Nawal Slemiah, the founder of Women In Hebron, a feminist cooperative that, in the words of their website, is a collective of “over 120 women, of various ages, from eight different villages and communities in the Hebron area” who “use the age-old tradition of embroidery to produce handbags, purses, bracelets, clothing, cushion covers, wall hangings and other articles…we pride ourselves on being the only independent, female run and managed shop in the Old City of Hebron.” You should buy beautiful handmade things from them and support this awesome cooperative! Not only do they resist the occupation, but they are also a beacon of feminist struggle in one of the more conservative parts of the West Bank.

How did Women In Hebron begin?How I started the co-op is I did it myself first, in my home, in my free time, I collected many things, many designs, then I came here by chance to the old city to find people to sell, then I got the shop very easy because the old city was closed and there was nobody in the shops, so  i took it very easy. Then later I had women from other other villages with me, they asked me to help them share their work. Then my sister Leighla came to work with me in the shop. Now she is the boss of the shop in the old city and I work with the women. I can get the designs easy from my home, from my mother, from my grandmother, from my sisters, we had a lot of things in our homes, so I took the old things and I used them new, and from my mind i can design, the same as all the women in our village, we know how to do the embroidery. Its easy for us. It is traditional thing in Palestine, women in the villages have this tradition. We take it from our mothers. Before, it is red color [on the outside] and different colors on the inside, this is traditional. But later we use green, brown, blue, all the colors, for the internationals. Because we sell for internationals mainly, because the Palestinians don’t need it. The main thing for Palestinians is to have food and something to wear, its not important for them to buy. And also many of the women in the villages can make it, they don’t need to buy.

Is it important to sell to internationals?

When we sell something to internationals we know that he is going to take it back to his country and tell his family, his neighbors, his friends that this is from Palestine, from Women in Hebron and he will tell the story of women in hebron, and we always give the card so we will tell other people about us and about our website.

What was it like, beginning the cooperative in this market?

I was the only woman in the market, and it was strange for the media to see women in the old city, in a shop, so [people from the] TV came and filmed me many times. So the women saw me on TV many times talking about how the old city was closed and encouraging people to come back to their shops, so the women came to me and asked me for help.

Do you ever face hostility or criticism from other Palestinians?

Many times we faced hostility, me and Leighla, we are suffering a lot. Every day, especially from  men and from women also. From Palestinians, I’m sorry to say but this is always the case, because we are the only women here. First, the young shebab, and men especially if they see internationals with us, and sometimes I don’t blame them because there is no women here, and this is danger for Palestinians because this area is not controlled by the PA, it’s controlled by the Israelis and its not in our ability to stop any murderers or thieves, so people are free to do what they want, so it is very dangerous for us.
It’s not normal for women to have a shop here, usually it’s men, so we are the only women here.
I think its very important, all the women they should follow us. They should not listen to the culture, this culture, its bad for us. I know how its important to follow the culture, but sometimes it’s not culture, its just people who say something [is] from a long time ago so we have to follow them. We are not doing anything bad here, we feel that we are very ok. Not all the people understand, but many people do understand what we are doing here.
You can see this in Bethlehem and Ramallah, its normal for women to have a shop, but in Hebron it’s not normal. In Hebron women can be teachers, nurses and doctors outside of the old city, but not to own a shop, especially in the old city.
[Even outside of the old city], women don’t own the shops, they work inside the shops., they get 300 or 400 shekels a day, they work 10 or 12 hours, not a lot of money.

I have noticed that men sell even women’s clothing to women! Isn’t this strange?

Yes, it makes us feel uncomfortable. Many time I stop to buy these things and I change my mind.

Are women afraid to join you or to come to the shop?

Yes, women and their families are afraid to join me here. Their family doesn’t like them to stay for a long time. If they come they come to take their money and give us the work and then leave. Because they always hear there are problems here [in the old city] so they are scared….settlers harass the people and the soldiers, so the people are afraid to come here.
The situation is very hard, there are a lot of women who have very hard situations, and we are only one shop. There is too much work, and not enough tourists to buy.
I think there are a lot of women who want to be independent, but their family will not let them. There is one woman with us but her husband is very bad with her. She wants to work in the city here, she worked for 5 years but she stopped after 5 years because her husband did npot want her to go outside, and her family also thought t is not important for her to go and work in the old city, so she has to stay with them.

When you began, did you expect the difficulties, the harassment by the IDF and the community, the fear?

I didn’t know anything about the situation. It was very hard for me the first two years when I started, its still hard every day, especially for Leighla.

Does this work empower you as women?

Me and Leighla and other women for sure, we get more strong and we feel more free. When I give the money to other women they are very happy because they can buy their own things, they don’t need their husbands or their family to give them money. Some of them don’t even have family to give them money, so they were very happy when we give them money, they feel very strong because they can buy things for themselves.That’s the problem, [society says that] she should listen to her husband, if he gives her money she can go somewhere, if not she cant go anywhere. This is the problem with the women, they are very poor. Even sometimes they have money but they cant own this money, their husband holds it, they cant touch this money. I want women to be independent, I don’t want them to depend on their family or their husband anymore.

Usually when people think of feminism in the Middle East they want women to take off their hijabs…

We don’t mention any of these things because especially in Hebron its very important for the people, so if you come at people with this idea they will leave us, especially in Hebron. It is cultural and religious, so we don’t touch this.

How did you start this cooperative?

Myself I needed the money, and I always wanted my mother to give me the money to buy me something because my husband had no money, so I would go to my mother to take money from her. Then I started this project but nobody agreed to give me the money to help me to continue, so I started with 700 shekels and day after day I sold, and then I got 10,000 shekels. Then I accepted more women to work.

What motivates you to continue?

I know its very hard, I like the idea very much but I pay for it every day with my life, with my time. Nothing is easy about it. And I am in a good situation, I am not rich, but my husband is working, we have a house, my husband has a car and I can use his car all the time if I need something. If I need to go to the factory I call him, if I want to go visit any of the women. So this is the idea, I have the help but other women they don’t have the help, so with my situation I can help other women. My village especially, the women they live far away near the wall, they are poor and if they want to come to the organization they need to pay 20 shekels every time. They don’t have the money to pay that, so I ask my husband in the early morning or the evening if I can take the car and get the work from them. So we do that.

What does your family think of your work?

Where I live now, is not my real family, it’s my husbands family. The women in my husbands family they don’t like my work, they think I should stay with my kids because I leave my kids with the family. They don’t like that, they say I should stay with my kids in the home, the money my husband makes is enough. But I was independent all the time before I get married, and then suddenly I was dependent on my husband after I get married, because I left my work. It wasn’t my style, for my life, to wait for somebody to give me money. So that’s why I started something from my home, the same ideas- the women they can go outside their homes, from their family and their culture,

What do you hope to teach to women here, what new things do you want to expose them to?

English lessons, computer lessons because I am the only one who speaks English and works on the computer. I cant do it all on my own. I cant go anywhere, I cant visit my family in the evenings, I spend all the evenings working. Other women need to do my job sometimes so I can take some time to rest. All this work is volunteer for me.
I think every woman should have internet and computer in her home, because with the internet she can see everything. People here know the bad things about internet, but they dont know the good things about the internet. All my friends on facebook are internationals, I dont have any Palestinian friends on facebook.
English in the village is very weak, especially for the small kids. We want all the children to learn English, it’s very important because English is the main language between all the world.
They have school all the time, but not all the women go to school. They have to stay at home, and [when they were young] their family didn’t know that school is very important. Now all the women know that it’s very important for their kids to go to school, but before now they didn’t know this.
Every women should know her rights, what to do, and also she should not forget her duties to society and her family and her husband. If I am working I should not forget my family also. This is what we tell them- ‘you should work and be independent, but do not forget that you have family, because then you make problems for yourself.’

What difficulties do you face under occupation here?

Like all the owners of the shops, the settlers stop near my shop many times and harass me. But for is this is not problems, this is occupation. We don’t call these problems, we call it normal here.
Even with all these problems, we will not close, we will not close. We have to have the shop here. Because if we close ourselves, many shops will close after us. Its very important for us to keep our city open.

In general, do women suffer under occupation differently than men?

If you stop me at a checkpoint, they will stop the women and the men. It depends on the commander, and all the soldiers, if they are nice or not. When the Second Intifada started, women had to raise up their dress, especially if they are pregnant. Every time they have women soldiers, they give them to the women to check them.
It is harder for the women but it makes the women stronger. If I see the occupation, if I see the soldier pass I don’t care so much about their guns. I feel angry when I see them with their guns, but also they are nothing, it is as if I didn’t see them. In my eyes they are silly people. They are strong because of their weapons, but we are strong in our mind.

Promoting culture itself is a form of resistance, right?

I remind my daughter all the time, and the same with the other women, that you should follow the culture, you should keep the culture. That is a kind of resistance.

Some people say that the Palestinian people should work to end the occupation first, and then should work on other struggles within their own society. Do you agree with people who say that the feminist struggle should wait until after the struggle to end the occupation?

If we don’t give women power, they will not help to end the occupation. Women in Palestine they are half the society, so they should share this act to end the occupation. The occupation will not be over in one click. You need a long time because we don’t have any power. The only power we have is inside ourselves, and women are part of the society. So I believe that women should be strong first.

Wednesday September 21st, Hebron March for Statehood

Today- crowds surging through the streets of Hebron with Palestinian flags waving, running through traffic in the middle of the morning, yelling and chanting, swarms and swarms of people. as the taxis rolled, as the shops baked bread, as grocers arranged and cut their meat, as mothers went shopping, as kids were walking to school, as cars were honking. Gathering and expanding on the street, surging forward, the crowd with flags and fists and chants- the PA came and blocked them, a resounding ‘boooooo’ through the crowd, yelling, chanting, children looking up at me- i had a camera, i was white, everyone swarmed around me, ‘take my picture!’, kids with palestinian flags and UN 194 banners posing for me, grabbing their brothers- the crowd surging forth past the PA guards, down the street, resounding cheers- then BOOM! BOOM!, the crowd doubled back, bodies turned to run towards me, surging mass pushing towards me, panicked faces running, I turned and ran as well, ran past old women trying to get bread and tomatoes from the market at 10 AM, ran past men in business suits, ran past taxi cabs with doors half open, and shopkeepers who looked startled, ran and jumped over boxes, tumbled over crates and skipped over tire tracks in the middle of the road- smell of tear gas began to hint in the air- BOOM! BOOM! children yelling, ‘allah hu akbar’ as we ran as one mass. Then stopped, panting, out of breath, doubled back to take pictures, people streaming onto side streets. The protest dissipated, PA and IDF standing by the checkpoint, looking guarded and bored and riled up and tense and at the ready. kids walked back together with rolled up palestinian flags, looked down at the ground, looked up and smiled again.

then baladayi square- huge billboards of hebron, UN 194, OCCUPATION OUT, PALESTINIAN STATE- thousands, thousands jumping and screaming and cheering. marching bands full of 10 year old kids in regal uniform. huge mobs of schoolgirls swarming past me, chanting and clapping, backpacks bouncing off their backs. mothers holding children, teenagers pouring water on each other, crowd surfing, pumping fists in the air, old men standing off to the side with their arms crossed, smiling. i was with a girl from ISM, the young palestinian men swarmed around her asking whatsyrname, ‘they are from a village and have never seen a foreigner’ an old man explained to us. shouting jumping crowds, thousands more marching past every minute with enormous banners with mahmoud abbas’ face, slogans. the hope! joy and optimism as trucks came up to give free water. the drums! happy crowds under the sun, everyone waving cheap palestinian flags, running up to you smiling hello! take my picture! singing and clapping, the cheer! even though the US will veto! the hope!

then the market. old old city, ancient market, cobble stones, narrow windy pathways. IDF soldiers standing in a line, firing tear gas, running, huge crowds running, screaming. whirlwind, stampede, like gazelles, we duck in an alleyway and see the kids and adults running, running, and then a moment later the soldiers, running, running after them. all the screaming. here, at two in the morning before i go to bed, with mosquitoes kissing the screen in front of me, i can only remember the BOOM, and the screaming. some palestinians took us up on a roof to watch- six fresh faced young IDF soldiers on an adjacent rooftop, crouching, looking down below. Down below, in an alleyway, young shebab with kafiyas on their faces, throwing stones and running. not more than ten years old, they peep out from behind an alleyway, chuck a stone up at the roof, or down the alley, then disappear again. some have fancy home made slingshot, they whirl it in the air and launch the stone as a projectile that, if it hit at the right spot, could be mildly frightening, even for a heavily armored and armed soldier. then the tear gas hits the ground beside them, and they run. battle like this for an hour, the kids never give up, for what? to resist. alleyways littered, covered with stones. battered street, marketplace closed. how could you continue to sell falafel as tear gas canisters roll on the street outside your shop? and yet they do it, life goes on for a city under siege, used to it, though battered, bruised city, marketplace closed by three pm. ghost town. bruised, licking its wounds. tomorrow morning the shops will open again. i remember, in the midst of the old city tear gas, a young boy runs up to me- you understand? he yells with frightened face, reddened and teared from gas. do you understand?!?!?