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Women in Hebron: A Talk by Nawal Sleimah

For International Women’s Day, TALA LADKI explains how Palestinian women earn income from traditional handicrafts




The Chester Friends of Palestine recently hosted a talk at Chester Unity Centre, by Palestinian mother and co-founder of ‘Women in Hebron’, Nawal Sleimah.


Nawal and her daughter, Haifa, travelled to Britain from their hometown in the Palestinian city of Hebron (West Bank), and have since visited several cities already as part of Nawal’s tour to promote Women in Hebron. During her talk in Chester, she offered insight into her growing business as well as an overview of the current situation in Palestine.


Women in Hebron is a nonprofit cooperative that empowers Palestinian women in Hebron by providing them with opportunities to earn income through the production and sale of traditional handicrafts. The art of Palestinian embroidery, Nawal told us, is passed down from generation to generation, and is therefore known by the women very well. The unofficial name of Nawal’s initiative is Idna Cooperative, internationally recognized as Women in Hebron.

 

Honouring the role of women

Nawal first started this idea in 2005, and it has since grown to include around 150 working women. The work is not only about generating income but also about strengthening the community, honouring the role of women, keeping traditions alive, and demonstrating steadfastness in the face of occupation and hardship.


Nawal began her talk by giving the audience a glimpse into her business and how she came to start it. Her husband had been imprisoned for several years by the occupation and was released in 1999. As he struggled to find decent work, and with three kids now, Nawal felt the need to contribute to the household earnings. She began creating these traditional hand sewn designs in 2005 and selling them at the local market.


Soon after, her sister began assisting her at the market as well. Nawal spoke about the struggles they faced being the only women business owners in the village and how they weren’t easily accepted. She also spoke about the struggles they faced with the settlers, who often pestered them. The business began to grow over the years and Nawal was able to create a safe space and community for the local women while providing them with the chance to earn some income.

 

Laughter and heartbreak

The women work throughout the days and the nights and assess their needs together. The space they share has become more than just a working space, it is a community where these women can share laughter and heartbreak. Due to life under occupation, it has been hard for Women in Hebron to make profit, forcing Nawal to seek sales abroad and bring in the cash, as the cooperative cannot have an international bank account in Palestine.


She also mentioned how some international non-governmental agencies took interest in helping her grow the business by giving her the necessary means, such as access to internet and enhancing her basic digital skills as well as her skills in English. This allowed her to later travel and talk about Women in Hebron and the work she and the women are doing.


When the 2015 war erupted, the business was severely negatively impacted. Resources were scarce and there were little to no safe spaces for the women to work from. In 2019, Nawal’s husband was killed, which demotivated her from continuing her work. Her sister supported her in keeping the business alive, but shortly after, the pandemic began. Another reason for pausing.

 

The importance of understanding history

From 2022, Nawal was able to resume her tours in the United Kingdom and other countries, where she not only introduces the audience to herself, her story and the stories of the 150 women who now work with her, but also warms their hearts with her calm and poised presence. The tour also aims to sell the traditional merchandise the women have handcrafted.


In the second part of her talk, Nawal discussed the current situation in Gaza and the West Bank, saying that while there has always been limited access to clean, drinkable water and only a few hours of electricity, now the people are at risk of dying from hunger as there’s no food in the supermarkets. She described how brutal the bombing has been, calling it one of the most gruesome aggressions in the past decade.


Nawal stressed the importance of understanding the history of the Palestinian plight, making sure to mention that this did not start on October 7th, but decades ago. She mourned the lives lost from both sides and asked the international community and the Arab countries for their support in allowing aid to enter and finding a peaceful solution.

Nawal’s visit ended with a fruitful “Q&A”, delicious traditional Arab finger foods and desserts and lots of Palestinian handcrafts.

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