Nélida Nassar 02.15.2016
Sarah’s Bag is an exceptional enterprise driven by creativity in the service of a social agenda as well as by aesthetics and luxurious taste. Among the company’s customers are Queen Rania of Jordan and Amal Alameddine Cloony, two icons of style who are likewise deeply engaged in the quest for social justice. How has the woman behind this enterprise achieved such success?
The 2015 Prison Reform Trust report reveals that women held in prisons and close supervision centers (CSCs) suffer not only from social isolation but also from lack of purposeful activity — a combination proven to harm mental health and wellbeing. Prison should not be the place to dump vulnerable women who have committed petty, non-violent offenses. Very often they themselves have been victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse and are likely to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during and following their incarceration.
In Lebanon, for the last 15 years an entrepreneurial solution to this problem has been implemented by Sarah Beydoun, aka Sarah’s Bag, in collaboration with Dar al Amal (House of Hope) demonstrating that real innovation in the prison system can make a decisive difference. Sarah’s Bag promotes a replicable business model that empowers women by making available safe, handwork that can be used to foster resourcefulness and inventiveness, namely through the creation of hand bags and other fashion accessories. In the process, it develops a vital means, too, of creative and compassionate community organizing. When it comes to advancing women’s rights and choices, and defining what it means to embrace a proactive justice agenda, Sarah’s Bag is a remarkably simple but deeply meaningful way to help women recover hope and take responsibility for their own lives and those of their children.
In 1996, while completing her master’s thesis on “prostitution,” Beydoun volunteered with the association Dar al Amal. Following this experience, she started a program to help women prisoners by teaching them various artisanal skills. Working with the association in its prisoner rehabilitation program, she empowers these women by training them and providing them with income during their incarceration and then selecting the most talented to continue working with Sarah’s Bag program once they leave prison. In exchange, Dar al Amal provides legal and medical aid, psychological support and other reintegration services. It also helps the enterprise get the necessary yearly permits and arranges access to the prison in the northern city of Tripoli.
Most inmates come from poor backgrounds and broken families and have little education. Most have also been victims of childhood or marriage abuse. While some might be illiterate, surprisingly, from time to time one does find among them educated women fluent in several languages. At present, Sarah’s Bag collaborates with 30 women prisoners in the Baabda prison and 20 in Tripoli. Each woman can choose to learn the handiwork techniques that interest her. No qualifications are required — only patience and the will to work. The prospect of an income is a powerful incentive as many of them lose contact with their family once in prison and thus have no access to financial support. Working with Sarah’s Bag becomes not only a “passe temps” but also a lucrative endeavor.
Inmates first work with small accessories that are sold at very affordable prices to keep the whole program sustainable. After a period of training, those who show progress are given a design and the raw materials needed to begin making the bags’ outer surface or envelope. Samples of the design are tested and completed by an ex-prisoner who advises Sarah’s Bag on the fair price to pay after calculating the time spent on each piece, the intricacy of the work and its size. Then the inmates are paid per unit. The pieces of canvas are transformed into bags and clutches outside of the prison premises with the help of professional artisans, who add the metal accessories. Recently, the company has also started subcontracting the handwork to women in need to enhance their income and benefit from the enterprise.
From the outset, Beydoun was fortunate in being able to enlist the enthusiastic support of her friend Sarah Nahouly. They always used humor to deal with difficulties and the occasional failure. When Nabouly left Lebanon, Beydoun realized that she needed help to properly build her social enterprise, since she possessed only limited expertise in business and management. She never stopped educating herself, however, and in 2007, she recruited professionals to help her face the many challenges involved. Today, Sarah’s Bag competes both on the regional and international levels. Her sister Malak, who was an art director, has joined her, creating an even stronger team. Beydoun says that they are like a “piano 4 hands, the fact that we look and talk alike enables us to be in two places at the same time!”
In the 1990’s while on a trip to Amsterdam and after purchasing a multicolored, patterned hand-woven purse from Mexico, Beydoun discovered the importance of the handbag to the complete fashion look. In May 2000, at her enterprise’s inception, women were ready to give up their plain black or brown bags and experiment with unique, personalized handmade ones. This craze was mostly launched by “Fendi’s baguette.” Sarah’s Bag adopted a canvas as its language, one that would give prominence to both the design and the inmates’ handwork. Composed of four persons (including the two sisters) the design team members collaborate very closely. Beydoun believes that good design is encouraged by bringing together many bright ideas that can then be developed and implemented. To reinforce the company’s mission, the design chosen has to also have strong aesthetic and fashion attributes.
Sarah’s Bag adapts the latter’s popular and vernacular imagery from the Lebanese culture. A specific, unique model, custom-designed to the local taste and for the various trunk shows is staged in each of the different Arab countries. However, since the 2009 Paris show, the audience has grown to include the Far Eastern, European and, lately, the US markets. Most of the materials used are bought locally, although some may be imported by their suppliers.
Sarah’s Bag started as a social project and developed into a social enterprise. It practiced CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) avant la lettre. Altogether, more than 200 women that have been involved in or touched in some way by the enterprise, and the undertaking has also clearly transformed the two sisters. Once empowered, women inmates regain confidence and self-esteem: work helps them recover from the stigma of having been incarcerated. Their journey has been the chief motivator for Beydoun, who firmly believes that social enterprises are the future — especially in the Middle East, where governmental support is absent. She salutes companies that make a profit but also strive to foster social change. A radiant smile illuminates her face when she talks about defending social causes, which she continues to do with courage, passion and determination. Capable of seeing beauty in every object or person, her ability to transmit it is infectious.