Lebanese inmates stitch their way out of prison

From her rank cell in a notorious women's prison in Lebanon, Najwa never dreamed she would one day embroider a bag fit for a queen.

And then she saw her handiwork in Vogue magazine.

Today, she is an essential part of Sarah's Bag, a Lebanese designer label that blends style with social activism.

The brainchild and namesake of Lebanese entrepreneur Sarah Beydoun, Sarah's Bag employs female convicts and underprivileged women from rural areas to create purses and accessories that have made their way into top fashion stores in London and Paris.

Her funky designs include colourful Andy Warhol-inspired prints of Egyptian diva Um Kalthum and Lebanese singer Sabah, a map of Beirut turned into a clutch and evening purses intricately stitched with Arabic proverbs.

"To me, the story is inseparable from the purse," designer Beydoun told AFP at her office in Beirut's traditional but trendy Gemmayzeh neighbourhood.

"These bags are a link between the most advantaged and the most disadvantaged segments of society.

"In a way, they reflect Lebanon's extremes."

Beydoun's claim to fame began with a little white clutch that found its way into an issue of Vogue, which carried a photo of Jordan's Queen Rania at the 2004 wedding of Spanish crown Prince Felipe.

The queen wore a lilac Chanel number and her purse, embroidered with Arabic calligraphy, was one of Beydoun's early designs, fashioned in her parents' garage and hand-stitched by Najwa, who learned to embroider while serving a one-year sentence for embezzlement.

Beydoun credits a prison pass with changing her life. While writing her master's thesis on women prostitutes, the 36-year-old mother of two spent time at a women's rehabilitation centre as part of her research.

In a bid to offer inmates a way out of a seemingly bleak future, Beydoun began patiently teaching them in prison how to bead and embroider what would eventually become the first collection of her fashion label.

And the bug started to spread: once freed, a select few went home and taught women in their villages to embroider and join Sarah's expanding team.

Today, around 100 marginalised women across Lebanon create the bags that are showcased in Paris and thrill Arab socialites and celebrities, selling for between 40 and 375 dollars (30 to 282 euros).

- 'Each woman has a story' -

---------------

"This is a very good project that meets the needs of incarcerated women, both economically and in terms of helping them feel productive," said Ghada Hakim, a social worker with the non-governmental Dar Al-Amal which helped Beydoun gain entry to the Baabda prison.

Najwa, who requested her real name be concealed to protect her family, said the project has given her a new chance at life.

"My family shunned me, the village shunned me and my ex-boyfriend, who landed me in prison, disappeared," said the 36-year-old petite brunette.

"Everyone makes mistakes but Sarah's Bag gave me the strength to start a new life and brought me respect," said Najwa, who also embroidered a black clutch bearing the Arabic inscription, "Where is my heart" for iconic French actress Catherine Deneuve.

Since creating her brand 10 years ago, Beydoun has never taken out an ad, relying instead on word of mouth and the quality of her work.

Today, her designs are featured alongside the creations of internationally recognised designers like Christian LaCroix, Christian Louboutin and her compatriot Elie Saab in magazines such as Harper's Bazaar and Elle.

"Women of really prominent families would come in and make big orders and give them away as gifts," Beydoun said.

"They loved the designs, and they loved the idea that they were being socially responsible. They were our first ambassadors."

The purses made their way into the streets of New York and Paris, and orders for Sarah's bags began to pour in from across the globe.

"I'm struggling to keep up with demand," Beydoun said. "But I have one condition.

"No matter how big Sarah's Bag gets, every one of our items will still be made in Lebanon by women in need."

Her next project, to mark the 10-year anniversary of her brand, will be small and more than a little daring.

"I want to select 10 women who will stitch their stories onto purses, tablecloths or whatever inspires them," she said.

One convict will narrate on a large canvas how she conspired with her lover to murder her husband.

Another story involves a woman and her son, both serving time for murdering the boy's father, whom the woman said had been raping both for years.

Pulling out a sketch of a dark-eyed boy, Beydoun said the woman wanted to embroider her son's face onto a purse.

"She saw how Sarah's Bag put Sabah and Um Kalthum's faces on purses and it inspired her," Beydoun said.

"Each woman has a story. It's time they found a way to tell them."

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