‘Women in Hebron’ was started in 2005 by Palestinian native Nawal Slemiah. As founder and current director, Nawal has seen it evolve from a single table in a market in Hebron, Palestine, to employing over 120 women across eight cities and villages in the district with 3 stalls along the main thoroughfare of the Old City. A Palestinian non-profit fair trade cooperative, Women in Hebron began when Nawal collected traditional designs and embroideries at home after marrying. She traveled to the Old City of Hebron to sell them and was offered a previously empty shop by the Palestinian Authority. Circumstances conspired to make this possible: the closure of Shuhada Street (the main market place) to Palestinians since the Second Intifada has caused steady economic decline for the city and many shop-owners to move out of the Israeli-controlled H2 zone.
Women from other villages joined Nawal wanting to share the work. Laila, her sister came to manage the shop and Nawal now works in the Idna Cooperative Center with the women directly. ‘I get the designs from my home, my mother, grandmother, sisters. I took old things and incorporated them into new designs. In my mind I can design, as can all the women in our village: we all know how to do the embroidery, it is easy for us and a tradition for the women of Palestine.’
Nawal and Laila know the importance of international trade: ‘when people visit the Cooperative Center or the shop and buy something, we know they will take it back to their countries and tell people that this is from Palestine. They will tell the story of ‘Women in Hebron’.
The Cooperative Center aims to enable women with the resources to provide for themselves and their families through the production and sales of Palestinian handicraft items, earning an additional income that could not otherwise be obtained through part-time employment. More than this, the idea that developing Palestinian artistry is an act of community strengthening, of honoring the role of women in society and a means to show sumud – steadfastness – in the face of the occupation and the harm it has done the people of Hebron.
However, it hasn’t been an easy path to the point at which Women in Hebron finds itself now. The Old City is not a welcoming environment for a female-run and managed business: ‘I was the only woman in the market and because this was strange, people from the TV came and filmed me many times. We have suffered a lot because we are the only women. I think it’s very important all the women should follow us – they should not listen to the culture. I know how it can be important but sometimes it’s not culture: instead it’s just something from a long time ago that people say we must do.’ Difficulty exists in that some of the women’s families do not want them involved in the Cooperative: ‘I think there are a lot of women who want to be independent but are not allowed to be’ says Nawal.
Reacting in the face of these obstacles, Nawal maintains ‘Laila, the other women and I feel empowered. We get stronger and feel free.’ Through the sales of Women in Hebron products, the women in the Cooperative 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 – they feel strong because they can buy things for themselves. [In Hebron] women should listen to their husbands. If he gives her money, she can go somewhere, if he doesn’t she can’t go anywhere. I want women to be independent’.
Driving the project forward is Nawal’s determination: she is the stimulus for the Cooperative’s progression despite the difficulties: ‘I know it’s very hard. I like these ideas very much but I pay for it every day with my life, with my time. I am in a good situation; I am not rich but my husband is working; we have a house and a car. With my situation, I can help other women, especially in my village. Some of them live far away near the Wall. They are poor and to travel to the Cooperative costs 20 NIS every time. They don’t have this money so I ask my husband in the early morning or evening if I can take the car and collect the embroidery from them.’
Still, there is opposition within Nawal’s own family circle. She has faced criticism from other women in her husband’s family who believe that she should stay with her children at home. However, ‘I was independent all the time before I got married and suddenly I was supposed to be dependent on my husband. It wasn’t my style to wait for somebody to give me money. That’s why I started something from my home in the beginning.’
Currently, Nawal and volunteers are the only ones who can do the ordering, international communication, website and publicity work. The next goals of the Cooperative are to offer English and computer skills to foster the next generation of empowered females, and to develop a children’s center that will help meet the needs of the many women who simultaneously work with embroidery and raise young families.
The IDF (Israeli Defence Force) patrols in H2 zone, settler harassment and conservative attitudes toward women working here do not deter Women in Hebron: “even with these problems we will not close. We will keep promoting our tradition – it is a kind of resistance. The only power we have is inside ourselves and women should be strong in society.”
Tully Partnerships is a non-profit organization working with partners and participating in projects in support of the Palestinian people. We have been working with Women in Hebron since 2010 selling their embroidery products. As we enter our fourth year of partnership, we continue to be inspired by the women of the cooperative and the founder Nawal Slemiah. We are honored to have Women in Hebron as our partner.