As this year’s speaker from the University of Maine Law School’s Justice for Women lecture series, Mariam Jalabi came up to our neck of the woods to talk about her life in fashion turned activism. Born in Damascus and growing up in the Golan Heights, Jalabi was surrounded by her family of activists throughout her life. Currently, she is the UN Representative of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, living and doing her activist work in New York.
Fashion and political activism seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. “It seems like such a big shift but really I approached fashion from a very political perspective,” Jalabi remarks. “I got into fashion because I believed that I could dress women in a more liberated and a more democratic way. Clothing is not just clothing; it’s not a piece of cloth. It’s actually a language that you use to represent yourself to the outside world. And the way women dress is a way they speak to the world or how society addresses them. It’s a code that we all use. I wanted to create something that was practical, that was comfortable, and that was very fashionable for women who wanted to dress in a modest way.”
She saw fashion, not merely as the clothes on your back, but as a conscious representation of yourself to the outside world. In Islamic culture, there are certain norms in which women who want to dress conservatively are encouraged to comply. But Jalabi started her own consultancy and worked with clients in places like Turkey and Saudi Arabia to help women transcend those norms.
Jalabi remarks, “And it was something that was my passion – to help women represent themselves in a better way to the world. I was also interested in women’s entrepreneurship programs that had helped them create their own lines, their own work, and their own embroideries and their own ideas of what beauty was. Because beauty is really in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is something that we create.”
For Jalabi, changing society was not limited to the fashion industry. Once the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011, Jalabi knew she needed to be involved and active while still running her fashion business. As she became involved in the movement and became a regular face at all the meetings she could, she started to notice that “…women were not represented at the level that I wanted them to be represented at.” So she kept going to the meetings, creating contacts, and speaking up to promote the narrative that she wanted to be heard.
In November of 2012, when the Syrian Opposition Coalition came together and asked if she would be their representative to the United Nations, Jalabi readily agreed under one condition. “I will do it if we worked as part of my job to include more women and marginalized group in the effort to represent Syria and work with the UN,” Jalabi remembers.
Fast forward six years, Syria is still embroiled in this conflict and Jalabi is still engaged in this work. At her lecture later that evening, “The Struggle for Human Rights: From Syria to Maine” she emphasized the seemingly never ending nature of the conflict and the necessity of including all people in finding a solution.
“You can’t create a solution for Syria without including the whole population,” Jalabi states in reference to women’s inclusion in the peace process. Women have been entrenched in protests from the very beginning. Women engage in peaceful protests all over Syria and throughout the conflict. Specifically, the Brides of Damascus were a group of women protesters in November 2012 who wore wedding dresses in the Medhat Basha market holding red banners calling for a peaceful end to the conflict.
Jalabi argues that the crisis in Syria echoes loudly throughout the world. “We live in a global village,” she argues. Events on one side of the globe reverberate past what we can see and have longer effects than we will know. Engaging in social action work right here in Maine can have positive effects the reach out farther than our borders.