Hey Change Maker! My guest this week is Dr Janette Habashi of Darzah. Darzah is a project of a nonprofit organization called Child’s Cup Full that aims to empower Palestinian women in the West Bank and celebrate their heritage tatreez.
We begin the episode by talking about Dr. Habashi’s background and how Darzah got started. Dr. Habashi came to the United States to earn her PhD at Kent State University. After she graduated, she was hired at the University of Oklahoma. She began fundraising for after school programs in refugee camps in Palestine to help supplement education for children. This eventually led to her launching Zeki Learning, a nonprofit educational toy brand that produces ethically-made learning resources. Dr. Habashi explains how she experienced tremendous challenges with the launch of Zeki Learning – she didn’t know how to design toys or how to start a business. However, she knew she wanted to help solve a problem. She discusses how after launching Zeki Learning, she started receiving an influx of job applications from local women, explaining that 60% of the women in Palestine are unemployed.
After Zeki Learning, Dr. Habashi went on to launch Darzah, a nonprofit ethical fashion brand that creates authentic, handmade Palestinian products. Both Zeki Learning and Darzah are projects underneath a larger brand called Child’s Cup Full, a nonprofit initiative based in Zababdeh, a village located in the northern West Bank of Palestine. Child’s Cup Full is focused on economic empowerment for women in the area through both Darzah and Zeki Learning. Darzah’s products feature an embroidery style called tatreez, a traditional art form passed down through centuries of women. Their goal is to bring tatreez apparel and décor to the world in order to celebrate and preserve Palestinian heritage. Dr. Habashi discusses how complicated and intricate tatreez work is, explaining that it can take 6-7 months with multiple women working to finish one dress with tatreez.
We then shift to discuss the women that Dr. Habashi works with, as well as the challenges these women face within Palestinian culture. Dr. Habashi explains that Palestine’s history is full of colonization and oppression. Palestine has a high unemployment rate among women, as their expectation in society is to take care of the family (which includes extended family members). The lack of opportunity and resources makes everyday life a struggle for Palestinians. Dr. Habashi describes how marginalized the community is from an economic, political, and social perspective. She also explains how different the concept of gender equality is for men and women in Palestine compared to Western ideas. In Palestine, women feel like they have more freedom when they don’t interact with men. This separation is how Palestinian women achieve greater gender equality.
After that, we take a deep dive into tatreez and its rich history. Dr. Habashi talks about how every design and motif is associated with a specific region in Palestine. Every motif has a name and a story that she wants to share with the world. Dr. Habashi talks about how sadly, tatreez motifs are often stolen by other cultures and companies and used in products to make a profit that doesn’t benefit the Palestinian people. We also discuss the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Dr. Habashi expresses how important it is that people learn the Palestinian culture when they purchase items with tatreez. She is currently working on creating a tatreez archive that will document the more than 200 motifs they work with.
While Darzah was originally started with shoes that featured tatreez, the brand has since expanded to include home decor, bags, and accessories. Dr. Habashi explains how the Palestinian women working on Darzah products are being trained by a professional artisan from New York. It’s important to the mission of the brand that the products they’re making are locally sourced and support the Palestinian economy. When I ask her why it’s so important to understand the value of the brands we shop, she replies by urging people to start thinking about how their action and behavior contributes to exploitation – social exploitation, economic exploitation, and political exploitation.
We next talk more about the unrest in the Middle East and how that impacts the day to day lives of the Palestinian women she works with. Dr. Habashi emphasizes how repressive and violent life in Palestine is, relaying several stories of abuse of the Palestinian people for merely wearing the country’s national colors. She comments, “It’s amazing how we manage to stay alive [in Palestine]. And we’re hoping to stay alive and grow…but we have to account for all of this unpredictability. It’s terrible. It’s awful.” Dr. Habashi describes how access to things we might consider basic human rights – water, healthcare, travel – is often stolen or restricted to Palestinian citizens. She urges listeners to be in solidarity with Palestinians, explaining that being an ally is not enough.
After that, we discuss the impact of Darzah on the women she works with. She explains that Darzah gives the women security and a sense of ownership. Darzah has become their livelihood, so they’re willing to go above and beyond to make things happen. Dr. Habashi also talks about the savings groups the women have formed. Every 10 months, a rotating member of the group gets to use a collection of funds saved by all the women to make a big purchase or pay off a loan. Dr. Habashi remarks that the women working on Darzah projects view themselves as a family, and they truly enjoy each other’s company.
As we wrap up the episode, I ask Dr, Habashi who inspires her and why. She responds with two figures: Banksy, and Ruth from the Old Testament. Banksy’s desire to shake things up with art and challenge the public’s thinking about who and what is important is admirable to Dr. Habashi. When it comes to Ruth, she feels inspired by Ruth’s pragmatic approach to life. When asked how our listeners can partner with her to change the world, Dr. Habashi says that everyone has something to give. She encourages listeners to purchase something from the Darzah website, support the organization through a fundraiser, or volunteer their skills and time to help further Darzah’s mission. If nothing else, she urges listeners to help ensure that Palestinian culture is not appropriated. Listeners are also encouraged to visit www.darzah.org, www.childscupfull.org, www.zekilearning.org, and follow Darzah on Instagram: @darzahdesigns.