Of Handbags and Hope

Lebanese women prisoners embroider handbags that jumpstart new lives

Despite Lebanon’s decades of internal strife and external conflict, its inhabitants remain upbeat, possessing an inbuilt love of life that few countries can match. Fashion designers and women prisoners here are no exceptions. While seemingly on opposite ends of the social spectrum, both now enjoy a wonderful symbiotic relationship through Sarah’s Bag.

Beirut-born Sarah Beydoun is the creator of Sarah’s Bag, a successful global fashion and accessories house adept at empowering underprivileged female prisoners. While Sarah was at university writing a thesis on vulnerable women, she worked with a non-governmental organization that supports vocational training in Lebanon's jails. What started out as a rehabilitation exercise for these women blossomed into a thriving international designer label coveted by the likes of actress Catherine Deneuve and Queen Rania of Jordan.

Most importantly, Sarah’s Bag has given some of the country's most troubled women a second chance. Take Juliana. “When Sarah started giving me work when I was in prison, she came with her colorful materials. I felt that she was bringing with her the color of freedom. Time passed quickly until I was free,” she said. “And I learned one thing, that no matter where you are, God never lets you down. I am so thankful to Sarah for giving me hope to start my life all over again.”

Juliana was imprisoned for six months for naively signing papers on her fiancée’s behalf, making her responsible for his debts. He disappeared and she never heard from him again.

Rahme faces a lifetime of incarceration. She was raped. She killed her rapist to seek revenge. "I've heard about many women prisoners who managed to pay their way out of prison with their craftwork. I dream sometimes that it could happen to me one day," she said.

The ex-prisoners and prisoners working for Sarah's Bag were convicted for crimes ranging from petty theft to prostitution and drug dealing; but regardless of the charge, the opportunity to learn new skills in traditional embroidery, crochet and hand-stitching has given them hope. Many have been rehabilitated back into society via craftwork and are making their own way financially.

"It is hard to work with these women as we are continuously faced with emotional or familial legal problems,” said Sarah. “But I can assure you that the reward is amazing.” Rewards include witnessing former prisoners move beyond the label of criminal to becoming economically independent and confident, and accepted in their communities.

“The impact it has on their lives is so gratifying it makes it worth it. But the impact goes beyond just the women we work with. It has been proven that when you economically empower poor women they spend their income on their family," Sarah said.

She keeps up with global fashion trends, then trains the workers further. The business now relies on former prisoners such as Aida, who runs her own workshop and organizes a team of 30 women from villages in the Aley district. They handle many big orders that come in from all over the world. “I get work not only for myself, but also for all the women in my society who cannot go to Beirut regularly and who can’t find a job themselves,” said Aida.

Iman too has been invaluable to Sarah’s Bag. Imprisoned for family issues and accused of theft, Iman is now at the helm of two women’s groups that work with crochet and embroidery. She incorporates old techniques used in villages surrounding her home in Hammena in the Metn area, into contemporary creations. “I have changed a lot. Now I have my own say. I have the freedom to move and act. I have power over my own life,” said Iman.

Sarah’s Bag now has boutiques in the Middle East, Africa and in the United States. To learn more, visit www.sarahsbag.com Cheryl Robertson is a journalist based in Dubai. www.simbacom.com/cheryl

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