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Prison-Made Handbags Prove Popular Beyond Beirut

  • Paige Kollock

Handbags made by current or former Lebanese prisoners on sale in Sarah Beydoun's Beirut store (file photo)

Handbags made by current or former Lebanese prisoners on sale in Sarah Beydoun's Beirut store (file photo)

Many women love handbags and purses. They can show a woman's wealth, style and taste, but they don't often have more profound meaning. A Lebanese company called Sarah's Bag has changed that. What started in 2000 as a school project has now expanded to become an international trend setter.

The bags in the showroom are unique. Almost all of them have been handmade by current or former prisoners. The idea belongs to Sarah Beydoun, founder of Sarah's Bag.

In 2000, Beydoun was a graduate student studying sociology in Beirut. While working at a women's center, she met prostitutes who were trying to reform themselves after prison and she wanted to help.

"I thought it would be a very good way to re-integrate them into society, since they'd come to our workshop, take the work, and then work in their villages, and they would make a small cluster around them work, so it becomes a village industry, and they become empowered because they can bring in money to their whole community," Beydoun said.

Juliana is one of the women. She was in prison for one year on charges related to unpaid debts. She began working for Beydoun from prison and has been with the company since.

"My parents' outlook on me changed a lot. They thought I was stronger. Even the look of the whole society changed. They didn't look at me as someone who needed money but as a productive person," Juliana said.

With five workers and a handful of bags, Beydoun tried her luck at a stand in downtown Beirut. The bags sold out immediately and people started placing custom orders.

She now employs more than 40 women in prison and 60 who are now out of prison. The bags have been carried by celebrities and royalty. And the concept has also motivated others.

"This project has touched people in many ways… I had people coming into the workshop and telling me they started a project in Pakistan that helps rural women, teach them how to work, all inspired by Sarah's Bag," Beydoun said.

In a society where many women struggle to gain equality, Beydoun says it was important for the company to demonstrate what an Arab woman is capable of.

"I believe that an Arab woman can be very productive," Juliana said.

To emphasize that Arab identity and celebrate it, Beydoun and her partners make bags with Arabic sayings. They also strive to revive the traditional Arab handicrafts of beading and crotcheting.