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Palestinian women sew for change: Artisan heritage as cultural and economic empowerment tool

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When I first came to Palestine, my impressions were dominated by the harsh reality of oppression, violence, and poverty.  Then I fell in love with Palestine’s beauty, which was in a stark and surprising contrast to my initial perception.  The beauty was in the landscape, seasons’ bounties, artisan work and the people who create them.  So I am fortunate to have been working for Sunbula, a Palestinian fair trade organization that uses the traditional handicrafts as a tool for cultural and economic empowerment for the most marginalized.

It is no mystery that Palestine has a rich artisan heritage.  Situated at a crossroads of continents and civilizations, and having hosted a number of peoples and empires since the ancient times, the artisan work of this land is an infusion of many cultural influences, while it also evolved to form own uniqueness.  For many centuries, peasant women decorated their dresses with vividly colored embroidery, Bedouin women spun sheep wool and wove rugs and tents, and artisans in Bethlehem carved olive-wood and mother-of-pearl into relics and souvenirs for pilgrims.  Armenians perfected the art of pottery-making in Jerusalem, and glassblowers created those signature-blue glassware in Hebron.  In the southern coastal city of Majdal, craftsmen wove the famed Majdalawi fabric with indigo-dyed cotton.

Access to raw materials can be very challenging for the artisan groups that operate under the blockade, siege, and closures. (Photo: Sunbula, Steve Sabella)

Access to raw materials can be very challenging for the artisan groups that operate under the blockade, siege, and closures. (Photo: Sunbula, Steve Sabella)

It is no small miracle that these artisan works were made to survive and thrive by the people, when most of their historic homeland was physically destroyed, and whose existence and identity have been under the relentless and systematic acts of denial and erasure by its powerful occupier, backed by the strongest nation of the world.

Artisan work in the modern day Palestine found their way to numerous income-generation initiatives, which sprung up in the communities after al-Nakba of 1948.  The number of these grassroots enterprises continued to soar with each subsequent tragedy that would mark the Palestinian history.   The war of 1967, the occupation, and the two Intifadas compelled the families to seek means to put bread on the table in their new reality, when previous source of livelihood had been lost in the turmoil.  Women often took up the responsibility of a breadwinner, when men were unable to for various social and political reasons under the military occupation, and spearheaded grassroots economic initiatives and popularized the embroidery work as an accessible source of income.  And it is in the most marginalized communities today, where the artisan work is solidly established and systematized as an income-generation means, and where some of the most amazing works of art are being made.

Sunbula works with 19 grassroots craft groups, which operate in refugee camps and villages of the West Bank, support marginalized groups in East Jerusalem, give opportunity to people with disability and refugee women in the Gaza Strip, and empower Palestinian community inside the Israel proper.  We work to ensure the economic viability of their products – embroidery, Bedouin rugs, olive oil soaps, ceramics, basketry, wood carvings – by facilitating access to the market.  Our fair trade stores in Jerusalem are the lifelines for hundreds of families, for most artisans have few alternatives to sell their products under the closure, siege, and blockade.  We also collaborate with the young generation of Palestinian designers, whose talent, passion, and fresh approaches have invigorated the crafts scene through the fusing of modern designs with tradition.

Women's embroidery and sewing work is often the only source of income for families, especially in places like refugee camps. (Photo:  Sunbula, Steve Sabella)

Women’s embroidery and sewing work is often the only source of income for families, especially in places like refugee camps. (Photo: Sunbula, Steve Sabella)

In Gaza today, people are once again working to rebuild lives in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge, the latest chapter in their brutal, enduring history.  While I fear and worry about the fate of precious ancient artisanal works that had survived the previous wars, I also know that the embroidery will continue to play a vital role at women’s cooperatives across the Strip.  Gaza’s women tell me that they need work more than anything right now, and their need for income will always be a reason to pick up the needles and threads.  But they are doing something bigger than just earning; theirs is a resilient act of keeping alive Palestine’s cultural heritage and identity against the great, many odds.

Who is there?
When the piece have to be picked up.
After the cameras and compassion have floated away with the dissipating smoke

Who is there?
To stitch back together the past and the future
So that her children can eat and know how to dream, smile and create again.

A testament to love and regeneration in the face of senseless brutality.

All of us who have fed this fire
through our ignorance, indifference and inability
to stop those who destroy lives and futures in our name and with our coin

Will we be there?

When the smoke clears and the unspeakable harm that we have allowed to unfold
In transformed and transmuted into a future that can not be denied
a freedom that is undeniable

A mother and her daughter
sitting together reweaving ancient wisdom
reminding us of our our forgotten humanity
If only we could be worthy of their love

Will you be there?

(Poem by Taj James)

Sunbula is currently running a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo.  Help Palestinian women create traditional works of art that support their families: Palestinian women sew for change

Shirabe Yamada

Shirabe Yamada is the executive director of Sunbula.

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5 Responses

  1. Kay24 on October 13, 2014, 11:53 am

    What great work, and what resilience as always by these long suffering people. It is sad to think that they have been deliberately kept down, and prevented from progressing and flourishing as a people, something they were doing before the evil entity were rudely placed there by the UN and Western nations, because they were not wanted by anyone. Those who had to suffer the consequences of that arrogant decision, are these poor Palestinians, who have lost their lands, farms, water, and every resource needed to survive. Good luck to these fine women.

    In the West Bank, we see evil at work again:

    “The Israel Defense Forces issued 119 orders to confiscate property from Palestinians in the West Bank in 2013, compared to just one such order in 2011. In a response to the civil rights organization Hamoked Center for the Defense of the Individual, the IDF did not specify the items that were seized or what was done with them. The state has until the end of this month to reply to a High… Haaretz

    Getting rid of the Arabs by terror, assassination, intimidation, land confiscation, and every bloody thing that their zio demented minds can think of.

  2. Elisabeth on October 14, 2014, 2:52 pm

    A while ago there was talk at Mondoweiss of starting a webshop. I then suggested selling the superb Palestinian embroidery.
    (To see more:
    Each village has it own patterns, and often the patterns have a specific meaning, indicating the religion, marital status and other things of the wearer. (See also:
    (This is in fact very similar to Dutch local folk dress, where similar things, and especially the degree of mourning a family is in, can be read from the clothing.)
    Palestinian embroidery used to be sold as ‘Israeli embroidery’ in the seventies and eighties. I don’t think that is still the case, but the patterns are still being appropriated. (
    Sunbula is the perfect place to buy these products. They are a non-profit organization which offers Palestinian women a platform to sell their products, offering them a dignified livelihood that keeps Palestinian traditions alive: The local traditions of embroidery were almost eradicated together with the Nakba.
    (See also Embroidery under occupation:
    I ordered from Sunbula before, and I really think Mondoweiss could and should promote them in one way or another by means of the website.

  3. Raksha on October 15, 2014, 7:55 pm

    Thank you so much for this article, Shirabe. For me it could not be more relevant or more timely. I have a longtime interest in Palestinian embroidery, going back to the early 1970s when I discovered the book Palestinian Embroidery by Shelagh Weir in the Los Angeles County Art Museum gift shop. This book is copyright 1970 by the Trustees of the British Museum.

    Although it’s a thin trade paperback and most of the photos are in black and white, I was captivated by the style immediately. I was fascinated by the way the comparatively small number of traditional motifs were combined and recombined and recolored to produce seemingly endless variations. Early on I picked one of the chest panels shown in the book to chart and embroider in cross stitch as a pillow, which I finished in the early 1990s. Eventually the pillow wore out, which it should not have done; that was due to an error of mine in constructing the back. Some time after that, I lost the chart in one of the many involuntary moves I was forced to make after my husband passed away.

    When I joined Pinterest a few months ago, one of the first boards I created was my Palestinian Embroidery board.

    This board has just been enriched by about 10 new pins from Elizabeth’s board. But even before that, it had more pins than any of my other boards, more even than my cross stitch board. It goes without saying that many of the followers of that board are Palestinians–or they very often have Arabic names anyway. When I check out their boards in search of new designs, I’m always impressed by the strong nationalistic feeling that infuses their love of the work, whether they are designers, artisans or collectors.

  4. annie on October 15, 2014, 9:20 pm

    yes, thank you so much for the article. i just visited the crowd funding campaign you linked to also and watched the video.

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