Between the very intricate social structure of the Gaza Strip and the constant political disorder, Palestinian women experience huge challenges on a daily basis. Thanks to a high density, motley population from many different backgrounds, there are many social codes governing what women can and cannot do, in marriage customs, education and employment. And they vary significantly from one district to another. In Rafah, for example, girls are expected to marry very young, starting from 14 years old. Samah, who is now 28 years old remembers, ” At fourteen, I don’t remember being forced into marriage, but now I realize how naïve I was taking such a serious step at that age. It was of course a decision made by my family, my society my whole environment. I wish I had been more educated and aware. Maybe I would have had a better life.” Samah sees no way out of her situation ” Divorce is not possible. I know I won’t be accepted within my family, and I can’t go it alone.”
Many, with the permission of the Palestinian Authority, have come to Gaza over the years from the Palestinian Diaspora scattered in many Arab and foreign countries. These families have brought social change with them. Many of these refugees were less religiously conservative than mainstream Gazan society, which has led to increasing clashes over lifestyle. For example, there are disputes over the hijab, with women walking around without the hijab being subjected to hostility, particularly in overpopulated places such as Jabalia and Beit Lahya. Amiera Najar, 32 years old says, “I sometimes have harsh words flung at me; people judge me and even threaten me. I have certainly been advised to wear the hijab in certain places if I want to avoid hostile reactions.” Such obligations are not enforced. But if the majority wears the hijab to indicate modesty out of social convention, women in a minority are soon under pressure to fall into line.
Then there are also the original inhabitants of Gaza, who dominate its trading activities and who constitute Gaza City’s upper echelon. Education is highly regarded among the families of this social class, and they think of themselves as more liberated when it comes to choice in marriage. However, marriage between these inhabitants and refugees to Gaza is not greeted with enthusiasm. Having made prestigious contributions to the city such as the establishment of banks and shopping facilities, members of these families have a lot of land and financial properties that they have passed on from one generation to another. Accordingly, they look for their equals in social class when it comes to marriage. Women belonging to these families frequently end up marrying a cousin or a near relative.
The ‘refugees of the ‘48’ meanwhile, still occupy the many different camps in Gaza - Shatea, Jabalia, Braij and many others. These places are often highly conservative - which is not to say that for women willing to educate themselves and to work, there are no opportunities. But in overpopulated camps, poverty is a real obstacle to higher education. So most families resort to marriage as the easiest safeguard for a better future for their daughters. But there are independent spirits. Ghada, for example, knows she is an exception. She is 26 years old now and says, “It is like committing a sin at my age, refusing marriage proposals in order to aspire to a better life. But I’ve seen a lot of failed marriages arising from ignorance, the very young age at which it often takes place, and, of course, the poverty. My vision for the marriage I'm looking for is completely different.” When I asked her about the kind of challenges she experienced in having such a stance, she answered: “I constantly have to prove myself, to my mother and married sisters that I can be a reliable person in my own right, without this involving my being part of some man's life project. The minute I get into trouble over finding a job, for example, the insinuations begin. They know they have mainstream opinion on their side, and that I don't. It doesn't take them long to remind me of this."
One of the social codes commonly observed in these camps is the tendency to force a woman who has lost her husband in war to marry her brother in law or a relative of the same family so that they can maintain custody of the deceased husband’s children. The convention is also designed to avoid any possibility of a wife being left in sole charge of raising a family. Single mothers are not approved of in such cultures. After the last Gazan war, for instance, many women were left widowed, and Hamas dedicated considerable funds to rewarding anyone willing to marry a ‘martyr’s wife’. This, it seems, held little appeal even in the most conservative areas! At least there was little visible public take-up. But it remains very much a family matter behind the scenes.
It is important to understand here that such a sense of social solidarity has nothing to do with either religion or the laws governing life in Gaza. Abdel-Karim al-Kahlout, Gaza’s religious spokesman, has never given his explicit support for such arrangements. The Palestinian Constitution, meanwhile, declares that the mutual agreement of the two people getting married is a prerequisite for the validity of the marriage. Nevertheless, such ‘approval’ is forced out of the women involved and neither the constitution nor religious declarations have any power on the ground. One sad case concerns a martyr’s wife who has been forced to marry her husband’s cousin, who is mentally ill. Her family refused to take her and her four children in if she disobeyed. So she submitted herself to this fate, simply in order to stay with her children. In another case, a man was forced to marry his deceased brother’s wife who is very much older than him and take care of her five children. The wife complains that he barely comes home, indicating that he is her husband on paper only. These customs have many disadvantages. But the greatest is the way that they belittle the potential of women, trampling on women’s right to self-determination, and where necessary, or through choice, to a future without a man.
In places with less conservative backgrounds, like the districts of Talelhawa and Remal, there is a visible increase in public awareness concerning the value for women of an education and employment. It is nowadays uncommon to come across a woman who is not seeking some grant to pursue her studies in one way or another. Safa’ Khader, a 30 year old mother of five children says: “I got married at 16 to my mother’s cousin. When my husband’s work required that we move from Rafah to live in town, I recognized that life was different there and that I need to work on improving myself as my husband does, and my children too - who are getting an education I never had. Otherwise, there would be a kind of gap growing between me and my family. So I took up studies and I graduated last year”.
A number of universities and colleges have sprung up, like the University of Girls, and the University of Palestine which have expanded their intake as a result. The Government has opened many new educational facilities, and has recently introduced some curriculum reform, offered scholarships for graduates in higher education, and begun monitoring student absenteeism. There are also many civil society initiatives that launch small fundraising projects to cover student fees and to provide bursaries for financially disadvantaged students. They also implement programmes specifically aimed at helping kids suffering from war trauma; a kind of relief aimed at promoting a better overall context for education.
Huda Najjar, headmistress of a Gazan elementary school, says that she decided to continue studying while she has her children with the full support of her husband and family. This she managed to do, and is now supporting other young females who wish to follow in her footsteps and continue their studies, by raising financial donations from local companies to offer students free extra classes.
In addition, civil society initiatives have fostered and supported women’s activism. These include small projects, such as offering women funds for producing and marketing handmade products as a way to improve their family prospects. Huda Hammoudah, Director General of the Palestinian Woman’s Information and Media Center, is a leading figure in Gazan society. She runs a media outfit which seeks to document the varying prospects of women in Gaza and which conducts public polls to this end, concerning their health, education, social and political participation. It is thanks to her fact-finding mission that we discover, for example, that in 2009: 38% of women were subjected to violence in early marriage; 67% women were subject to verbal violence; 71% women were subject to psychological violence; 52.3% women were subject to physical violence, and 14.6% were subjected to sexual violence.
When the parliamentary elections last took place there were many posters calling for greater political participation from women, and well-publicised press conferences encouraging female candidates. In the cultural sphere, recently, art exhibitions celebrating female artists have become common and popular. All such initiatives help in the broader process of establishing an appreciation for what women can do as a conventional wisdom that will yield far better education results for a future Gazan society. When women are being appreciated, offered education, and have the opportunity to determine their own future lives, the benefit to all is clear. And one day they will perhaps also help in the decision-making.