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How traditional embroidery helps Palestinian women achieve independence

08.03.2018 |

Palestinian women embroider for emancipation
3,000 years of women's history on a dress

"Tatreez" is an Arabic word for a unique style of Palestinian cross-stitch embroidery. Distinguished by rich colors and textures, it originated in the Middle East some 3,000 years ago. As photographer Fatima Abbadi explains, the craft has always been exclusively a women's territory, and it's been passed down from mothers to daughters like family recipes influenced by each generation.

Palestinian women embroider for emancipation
A coded language

But for Palestinian women, tatreez is not just a pastime and decoration. It consists of hundreds of symbols; their variations convey anything from the wearer's social, health and marital status to her current mood. A blue pattern, for instance, reports about woman's widowhood, while red crosses inform the surroundings that the mourning period has ended.

Palestinian women embroider for emancipation
Clothes can feed a family

The patterns differ from region to region, and their legacy is not treasured only by museums. In the past, many families set aside such attires and sold parts of them in times of crisis. A sleeve might have been enough for emergency treatment, and the entire garment could have provided for a child's education. "Those are memories that come to life with each embroidered dress," says Abbadi.

Palestinian women embroider for emancipation
From refugee camps to the whole world

With the displacement of Palestinians during the 20th century, tatreez gained a political dimension – it is often the only source of income for women living in refugee camps. Programs such as "Darzah" or the EU-funded "Tatreez" help them set up studios and develop and export products to the West. They also learn how to build and maintain a business, an important skill to achieve emancipation.

Palestinian women embroider for emancipation
How to make a tradition fashionable

In order to succeed on the international market, however, tatreez must be trendy and contemporary, which is why young fashion designers add new colors and even embroider European garments. Thanks to the brands such as All Things Mochi or SEP Jordan, which operates from a refugee camp in Gaza, tatreez is now stocked by high-end retailers and even made an appearance in Vogue.

Palestinian women embroider for emancipation
On the brink of extinction

Such initiatives help Palestinian women support their families and improve the quality of life in the camps but also ensure that the art does not disappear due to the current harsh economic, social and political situation in Palestine. After all, tatreez is a symbol of national identity first and foremost. "The embroidery always appears during holidays, weddings or festivals," describes Abbadi.

Palestinian women embroider for emancipation
Stories of an endangered art

Still, it is difficult to keep the tradition alive in the reality of diaspora. "My project aims to document the current state of the craft in an attempt to preserve it for future generations," says Abbadi. And she is not alone: The book "Tatreez & Tea" from 2016 also focused on its heritage, and tatreez even made it to galleries in the US thanks to contemporary artists such as Jordan Nassar.

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Once a craft practiced by village women, "tatreez" has become a symbol of women's resistance, identity and heritage. Fatima Abbadi, who spent years exploring its rich and turbulent history, told DW how that happened.

"I started embroidering when I lived in Jordan as a young girl — it is a common female hobby in many houses. Even though it's not as widespread as it once was, every family owns at least a dress or accessory with handmade tatreez," says Fatima Abbadi, a photographer and researcher with Jordanian-Palestinian and Italian roots. 

Coming from two cultures, she rediscovered the lavish colors and textures of tatreez while working on her book "Parallel Orientalism," which challenges stereotypes and deeply-rooted clichés about women in the East and West. "It's something strongly linked to national culture and identity. The patterns recall stories of women and their surroundings," explains Abbadi.

Over the centuries, tatreez has become a symbol of political resistance and one of few sources of income for women who are divorced, widowed, separated or living in refugee camps. However, as Abbadi points out in an interview with Deutsche Welle, tatreez is now an endangered tradition. 

Read more: Keeping an endangered Buddhist art form alive

DW: Tatreez has always been a female domain. How does it contribute to the process of liberation of Palestinian women?

Fatima Abbadi: It is a very powerful tool. Before the exodus of 1948, when the state of Israel was established, Palestinian women enjoyed a strong, independent role in Palestinian society. Women were respected, and the way they embroidered their dresses reflected their position. They often used luxurious materials such as silk, linen or brocades from Syria that were adorned with stitching made of gold or other precious metals. Women would go to schools, universities, they were able to travel abroad, visit operas or cinemas — they even collected funds and distributed food during the Arab revolt in the 1930s.

After the expulsion of Palestinians into refugee camps, women found themselves, in most cases for the first time, in need of employment to support their families financially. Since the craft was a common female hobby, many of them established embroidery studios to gain money. It was not only the opportunity to pass down the tradition of tatreez to the younger generation but also to gain independence and be empowered.

Read more: Hanan Ashrawi: Without two-state solution 'no hope of peace for a long time'

Western fashions replace traditional dresses in the Middle East

How did these historical events change tatreez?

The uprooting created a deadlock situation for the embroidery due to the difficulties that Palestinian women faced. Since they had to take a more pro-active role in society, they didn't have the time, nor the finances to embroider luxury garments for themselves. We had to wait until the 1960s for tatreez to make a comeback.

But the reappearance took a very different form. Cotton threads and cheap, functional fabrics replaced lush textiles, which reflected the social and economic reality of life in Palestine. In addition, simple western geometrical patterns started to occur due to the lack of time to embroider.

Read more: Plastic fantastic: Nigeria's carrier bag fashionistas

In contrast to western fashions, however, every tatreez pattern has a meaning for its wearer and those who can read them. What stories can it tell?

They can symbolize health, prosperity, protection or even marital status. Of course, the patterns can differ significantly from one region to another. In Ramallah, for instance, you'll see the motifs of cypresses, palm trees and feathers on a lightly-colored or black linen. A large pendant pattern on the chest is unique to Gaza. Pasha's tents and moons on a dark blue dress are typical for the area of Hebron.

Bethlehem used to be known as the fashion center of Palestine where techniques from Turkey, Greece and Persia melted with the local symbols of roses and apple branches. In Galilee, a land strongly influenced by Syrian and Lebanese traditions, dresses were less embroidered since women there worked on the fields alongside men.

Read more: UNESCO puts Hebron on its world heritage in danger list

In your work, you stress the role of tatreez as a "social network." How did that attribute develop?

This type of communication has its roots in the late 1980s. During the First Intifada, the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, it was prohibited and considered a danger to public order to display the Palestinian flag. Women then played an important role in the political resistance by creating a new form of visual discourse. They combined traditional motifs of tatreez with emblems of maps, flags or political slogans.

It was a sign of protest and solidarity, a symbol of political attitude similar to what #MeToo and #TimesUp represent nowadays.

But even today, tatreez still binds people together, and you'll find it everywhere, from shoes to bags, cushions, table runners, lamps, mirror frames and even mugs. Embroidered dresses hang in museums, and many Arab pop stars, such as singer Rim Banna, wear tatreez during their gigs.

One of the recurring themes of your work is the Westernization of the Middle East. How has globalization influenced tatreez?

Westernization and ensuing modernization are important processes and both have played a crucial role in defining the current shape of tatreez. The new generation of Palestinian fashion designers is introducing fresh forms and combines traditional patterns with European styles, for instance, and thanks to technological and social advances, Palestinian women can produce and export the embroidery on a large scale.

But globalization comes with a backlash. Most people have lost the ability to "read" tatreez, to recognize the meaning of colors, shapes and symbols, chiefly due to the loss of secular women's practices and heritage. Many young people today consume imagery only superficially, and as a result, they are unable to acknowledge the complexity of the embroidery. Likewise, many prominent western fashion brands have recently used tatreez without identifying the original source. That all now threatens the culture of the tradition.

Fatima Abbadi's work on tatreez is currently on show at the Vrije University in Amsterdam.

04:20 mins.
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