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."

Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Lizards, such as Iguanas (pictured), have a unique pattern of tissue growth
Anna Nicole Smith died of an accidental overdose in 2007
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

    £30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

    Year 3 Teacher

    £120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 primary supply teacher ne...

    SEN Teacher

    £100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply special educational ne...

    Regional ESF Contract Manager

    £32500 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Birmingham: European Social Fund...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home