My daughter Stefanie returned from a 3-week study trip to Israel and Palestine this past Monday. We have delighted in her stories, oohing and ahhing over her pictures, and in general vicariously taking part in this amazing trip. Today she has given me permission to use an essay she wrote for her team. May you enjoy this piece as you travel with her to Hebron, a place where people like Layla daily face the realities of occupation. Please feel free to interact with Stef through the comments.
Women in Hebron by Stefanie Sevim Gardner
On any given day, the winding alleys in the city of Hebron are full of shopkeepers selling scarves, spices, and everything in between. The colors, smells, and sounds keep your senses busy. There is so much beauty and life to soak up. One shop in particular doesn’t catch your eye at first glance, but the story behind the shop is unforgettable. The shop owner’s name is Layla Hasan. She is Muslim, a mother and a grandmother, and she happens to be the only female shop owner in Hebron.
Layla works with Women in Hebron, a non-profit that employs a few hundred women through the production of handcrafted goods. Women in Hebron’s website says the following: “Our work is based on the idea that developing Palestinian handicrafts is more than just an income-generating project. It is in of itself an act of community-strengthening, of honoring the role of women in our society, and a means to show sumud – steadfastness – in the face of the occupation of Palestine and the harm it has done to the people of Hebron.”
Our group spent the day in Hebron and saw this quote personified through Layla and the life she has created. Layla led us to her home, made of old stone that kept us cool from the Middle East heat. We sat on intricately designed cushions that lined the room as she served us a home cooked meal made of rice, chicken, cauliflower, and potato. With each empty serving, Layla would come over and pile our plates with double the amount that we had already consumed, insisting that we continue eating. She sat and talked with us as her granddaughters snuck peeks through the doorway and laid their heads on her lap.
Layla’s genuine Arab hospitality came through serving us food and tea as well as entertaining us with laughter and good conversation. Layla told us about her family. Her daughters live in nearby villages and her sons are in jail for attempting to work in Israel proper, because finding jobs locally can be difficult. She told us that her father and husband never approved of her working, preferring her to remain a homemaker. Layla defied their expectations, however. In jest she quoted to us a phrase that is embroidered on hand purses in her shop: “Men can do something. Women can do anything.” Though laughter accompanied this statement, it is one that holds true to her life. Layla said it is not easy to be the only female shop owner nor is it easy to work when the prominent male figures in her life do not want her to do so.
Layla helps provide life and prosperity for the women she employs, despite the fact that the odds are against her in a male-dominated society. Layla doesn’t brag or boast, but happily speaks about her life and shares her stories to those who will listen. Every day, she works in her shop and carries out the mission of Women of Hebron: to provide a place for community strengthening where the role of women is honored and represented. Despite the tumultuous state of Hebron, Layla brings hope to her community, and as the hand purses that she creates assert, no matter what odds are against them, “Women can do anything.”
To read more about this organization and the work they do head to Women in Hebron: A Palestinian Women’s Embroidery Cooperative. Also stay tuned for more photographs from Stef in a future post.