Behind the blockade, conservatism is rising, but so too is unemployment, poverty, depression and domestic violence
Eman, 23, is dressed in a black, veiled jilbab and lives in a collapsing shack on the outskirts of Gaza City. She left school at 10 and seven years later she was married, with a baby daughter. An open sewer flows past her front door. When it rains, rubbish streams into the kitchen.
“Before the blockade, my husband used to make good money working in Israel,” she says. “With the blockade, that all stopped. When he can’t find any work and we have nothing to eat, he blames me. He is a like a crazy animal. I stay quiet when he hits me. Afterwards, he cries and says, if he had a job, he wouldn’t beat me.”
It is five years since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip and Israel tightened its siege of the territory. Many men became jobless overnight and it is women who have ended up bearing the brunt of their husbands’ frustration. Besides sticking to their traditional role of raising children, the blockade has compelled large numbers of women to become the breadwinners, while standing by their husbands, many of whom have depression.
Violence against women has reached alarming levels. A December 2011 study by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, PCBS, revealed that 51% of all married women in Gaza had experienced violence from their husbands in the previous 12 months.
Two thirds (65%) of women surveyed by the PCBS said they preferred to keep silent about violence in the home. Less than 1% said they would seek help. Mona, my 22-year-old interpreter, is astonished when I later ask what support there is for women such as Eman. “If her husband, or in fact anyone in the family, knew she had talked about this, she’d be beaten or killed. As for places for a woman to run to safety, I don’t know of any.”
At first glance, Eman has little in common with Mona apart from their age. The latter is fresh out of university, fluent in English and wears a canary-yellow silk blouse and tight jeans with a large designer handbag. Until a few years ago, women such as Mona were the norm in Gaza and few would question their dress sense and independence.
Nowadays, with the blockade cutting off 1.6 million Palestinians from the rest of the world, conservatism dominates much of daily life.
It has also led to spiralling rates of unemployment among men – more than 45% of working-age people are without a job, one of the highest rates in the world. “The challenges of unemployment, fear of violence and restriction on movement can often mean that women and children are at the receiving end of men’s frustration,” says Ghada al-Najar from Oxfam Gaza. “There are many reasons why domestic violence is on the increase, including psychological trauma, the feeling of being trapped, and rampant poverty.”
Azza al-Kafarna is a Gazan women’s rights activist and manager of the news agency Ramattan, which recently reopened after three years of closure by Hamas. In her late 40s, she is one of a minority of women testing the limits of freedom through dress and behaviour. She refuses to wear a headscarf and when we meet, at a beachside restaurant in Gaza City, is wearing fitted trousers and a cerise blouse. Pointing out of the window to a group of women in black jilbabs and headscarves walking slowly along the beach, she throws up her hands. “Can you believe, right up until the 1980s, we were wearing swimsuits on that beach?
“Women are covering themselves more, not necessarily because Hamas tells them to, but because they are afraid,” she says. “It goes back to the intifada in 1987. If a woman didn’t cover up, she would be criticised or have stones thrown at her. It is not like that now but life still feels precarious. The veil for some women is perhaps a physical shield against the world. It may also, ironically, be one of the few things she feels she has control over.”
Yet this is not a simple tale of freedoms unwillingly lost. Al-Essi Mohammed is a mother of seven living in Al-Zarqa, a poor suburb of Gaza City. Dressed in a black niqab and headscarf, her eyes just visible, she says she welcomes the more conservative dress code. “Wearing the niqab fills me with confidence. It protects me from anything bad. Covered up, we can walk in safety with our respect intact.”
Naramin Farah, a Gazan artist, says that the most pressing concerns facing women in the coastal enclave are the day-to-day practical challenges caused by the blockade: diminishing healthcare and education, insufficient gas supplies for cooking, lack of clean water and food for children.
“There is a lot of pressure for the Palestinian woman to stand by her man, to support him, be part of him,” she says. “But now that men are no longer the breadwinners, the tables have turned. Women are taking on more economic responsibilities, but few of us have legal title to our homes or land.”
Earlier this year, Naraman Farah left her husband as he was “totally against” her continuing to paint. “So many doors have been closed to Palestinian women in Gaza. It’s like getting out of one prison only to find another door closed. There are many obstacles – the occupation, the blockade, the internal Palestinian division. I am not representative of Palestinians, but as women we need to feel free. The moment that is no longer possible, you have to act on it, to do something.”
Some names have been changed in this piece to protect women’s identities.