Who says that embroidery is only meant for women? Why can’t a man wear embroidery or hold a needle and a thread and be proud about it? Embroidery should have no gender: this is why Palestinian Salma Shawa in February launched ANAT, a community and street-wear brand that advocates this concept. While the idea pays homage to Palestinian roots and culture, what makes it special is the fact that it challenges notions of masculinity and femininity. The plan is to produce garments to be worn by all genders and intentionally all clothes are cut, sewn and hand-embroidered by both men and women in Gaza. Historically Palestinian embroidery, or Tatreez as it is known, has always been a female domain. It is a centuries-old creative art practiced mostly by women to decorate fabrics with a needle and a thread and a cross-stitch technique. The earliest forms of Tatreez go back to 1840 and for the next century it was used to decorate primarily rural women’s clothes. The political upheaval that followed the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians from their homes into exile – an event remembered as Nakba, the Arabic for catastrophe – revolutionised the practice. Tatreez became a symbol of women’s resistance, heritage and national identity.
Today designers and embroiderers use Tatreez in multiple and fashionable ways to embellish new creations that cater mostly women from all backgrounds. But 23-year-old Shawa wants to change that. She wants men to proudly join the production process and to wear Tatreez.
Fashion is Political
Born and raised in the Gaza Strip, Shawa moved to the United States where she graduated in Political Sciences and Management. Currently based in Boston, she thinks her university background opened up her mind to many different perspectives and opinions. It allowed her to dare venture outside of what is a “traditional” political science or international relations path. She is convinced that fashion intersects with politics. “To say that fashion is apolitical is at best a misnomer, for everything about the garments we put on our bodies is political, and if people do not realize this very easily, or actively think about it every time they make a purchase, that does not make it apolitical”, Shawa tells CIIN magazine.
For the young entrepreneur the mere fact that the clothes are made in certain countries is in essence political. This intersection between politics and fashion is even more obvious in the case of clothing made in Palestine. For years Shawa had been pondering how to translate this intersection into practice by creating a brand centered around Palestinian embroidery. With her mother Muna Masri she designed the first prototype of an embroidered denim jacket. “That was the easy part, believe it or not. But it took a few more years to come to fruition, because the idea was not clear, it lacked something groundbreaking. The prototype was beautiful, promising, made in Palestine, but a pretty fit was not enough for me”. She wanted the embroidery to pass a message, to create something that broke rules.
“My mom and I were already breaking rules by producing under a blockade that is imposed for the very purpose of making our lives difficult and stopping us from not only unleashing our creativity, but also cultivating it”. In Gaza almost two million people live on a strip of land by the Mediterranean sea under a blockade imposed by Israel. I took this idea of politics and fashion, combined it with my mom’s creativity and meshed it together with my rebelliousness”, Shawa says. And so ANAT was born.
I took this idea of politics and fashion, combined it with my mom’s creativity and meshed it together with my rebelliousness
Apart from the political aspect, the brand is innovative because it proposes genderless embroidery in a conservative society.
“Because why not? The past is in the past. If you want to stay in the past, and say embroidery should be worn by women, then might as well give up your internet, give up
your phones, give up appliances in your kitchen and what not”, she says.
While celebrating embroidery, Anat wants to pass the message that culture is ever changing. “Tatreez is the main element because we wanted to borrow from the past what shapes our present identities. We are a product of the past, but that does not mean we need to stop there and just take it as it is”.
“The youth are sick of having bodies and minds controlled with older people telling us that it is disrespectful to change culture and tradition. To me, the only thing that is disrespectful is not changing it. It is actually a shame for us to be stuck in the same place we were decades ago and be immobile like that. We shall never allow our critical consciousness to be stripped away from us and this is something Anat vehemently advocates”, Shawa points out.
Not the Usual Embroidery Message
Anat’s embroidery tells a different story from what can be found in the mainstream when it comes to Tatreez. It is not only about women producing embroidery on dresses, it is about men and women collaboratively working on embroidery in an attempt to break gender roles. Men are in fact encouraged to work in the industry without feeling shame.
“Why can’t a man hold a needle and thread and embroider if he is into the craft and he is creative with colors and has an eye for embroidery?”.
Having men join the practice also means they can contribute to family income in a place like Gaza, where unemployment, according to the World Bank, has reached 47% of the adult population in the second part of 2019. Men's involvement is not limited to the production. “When we were designing the collection, I kept thinking about how sad I would be if my own brand could not be worn by my brother, or male best friends, or a male significant other”.
A Community Beyond Palestine
By producing genderless garments she hopes that more people and nationalities will be drawn to the brand.
“Making it genderless meant that I would get closer to my objective of having a brand that’s beyond Palestine, beyond embroidery, beyond borders, beyond fast fashion, beyond the norms and rules that control us, while still bringing light to these norms and rules that oppress us”, Shawa says.
She wants people who wear Anat’s garments to feel they are part of a community breaking the norm and having conversations about culture and traditions. “It is not enough to just plaster some Tatreez on some cloth. You need to captivate your audience with your unique story and mission.”
Shawa explains that Anat goes beyond the overused ‘empowering women’ phrase that many tatreez brands are using nowadays. “Embroidery should not be just a ‘woman’s thing’, for if we see it as such, we are further entrenching the roles of women and demarcating women and men’s spheres very sharply. And that is something we want to overturn, and we are starting with embroidery, because it is at the heart of Palestinian culture”.
From Gaza to the World
Mother and daughter’s aim is to produce in Gaza from start to finish and then ship the items to Boston and from there worldwide. While Shawa is in charge of the photography, content creation, outreach, marketing, her mother Muna is the force behind the production process and the design of the patterns.
Boundless, Anat’s current and first collection, consists of denim jackets but future creations will include other materials too. The jackets are produced by the Hassan Shehada factory, the only denim producer in Gaza, who is in charge of the cut-and-sew part of the garment. Once the jackets are ready, they are taken to local embroiderers who usually work from home.
The hardest part of all is the shipping. While ANAT is ready to accept orders, the brand’s operations and shipping process have been put on hold by the health global
crisis provoked by the COVID-19 virus. But even in normal situations, exporting from Gaza is challenging. As the strip is blockaded, constant border closures, checkpoints and trade restrictions make shipping an expensive and lengthy process.
“To be honest we still have not figured it out. Once Covid19 is over, we are going to explore our options and try different methods. I think it will be a trial-and-error process in
terms of shipping”.
As Anat is part of a slow fashion movement, time is not an issue. “We do not care about producing in bulk or “ravaging” markets at the expense of the health of our producers. Every stitch and every cut and sew on the garments is made with lots of intention and this is how we will always remain, be it in Covid19 or not”, Shawa says.
Next Steps: Encouraging Men to Embroider
While most of the world is on lockdown because of the CoronaVirus outbreak, Shawa is focused on building her community. Having people who believe in the brand matters to the founders much more than mere fabrication of garments.
Shawa is also considering launching a campaign that encourages more men to embroider with ANAT. “Right now, 80% of the embroiderers are women, and that is fine because the point is to shift the paradigm, and we got to start somewhere. We want to remove the stigma and shame associated with participating in the embroidering process, and a campaign is necessary”. They are also planning to create a series of videos about the production and shipping process in Gaza in order to shed light on difficulties of operating in a besieged territory.
Until now Shawa and Masri have received an outpour of support, including from potential male clients. “Men can finally buy embroidery and wear it to show off their love for the Palestinian cause and also for the novel ideas ANAT stands for”, Shawa says. But they were also criticised. “There are always people who want to maintain the status quo and to keep the systems of control in place because it probably benefits them”,
Shawa explains. A bit of criticism does not deter the two founders who expected this type of response. Mother and daughter have just decided to ignore the naysayers and to focus on the supporters who are the basis of the forward thinking community they are trying to create.
Vittoria Volgare Detaille is a journalist and translator. After having studied Arabic Literature at the University of Napoli “L’Orientale”, she collaborated with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and with the Italian Press Agency ANSA. She has lived for more than 10 years in the Middle East (Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya and Kuwait) and is currently based in Singapore.
My Twitter is: @VittoriaVolgare