The double oppression of Gaza’s women

Women in Gaza face serious societal constrains at home, but also an ongoing siege that limits their freedom of movement and occupation and alarmingly increases the rate of violence against them. The untold price women pay for Israel’s closure policy.

By Aya Zinatey

A model of strength and resilience and an education in feminism. Women in Gaza (Photo: Shuair Karam / IRIN, Flicker).
A model of strength and resilience and an education in feminism. Women in Gaza (Photo: Shuair Karam / IRIN, Flicker).

Whenever the issue of Palestinian women in Gaza and the impact the closure has on them comes up, Gaza’s traditional societal structure comes up as well, and there’s a dilemma: how can we talk about the impacts of the closure without mentioning the societal injustice these same women suffer from?

I suggest looking at the occupation and the Gaza closure as a patriarchal system that helps bolster and entrench patriarchy in society. Israel is running this system, and bears much of the responsibility for the fact that Palestinian society in Gaza has become more misogynistic and more violent.

True, women in Gaza do suffer from serious societal constraints which often dictate their choices, decisions and way of life. But let’s not forget that women in other parts of the world also suffer oppression to varying degrees. Of course, this cannot justify oppression anywhere in the world, but it is worth remembering that patriarchal societies are everywhere, including in Israel (Hebrew). The voices that rise up every time we try to talk about the fate of Gaza women under Israeli rule, demanding chauvinism in Palestinian society must be addressed in the same context, are voices that aim to ignore the responsibilities Israel bears as a result of its control over Gaza.

Worse than Cinderella

Israeli policy dictates how the men and women of Gaza live. Let me talk about the Israeli occupation and the closure it imposes on Gaza first, focusing on women in particular:

Long before the closure was imposed in 2007, in the early 1990s, the permit policy began hemming Gazans in. It tightened the restrictions on them and distinguished them from the rest of the Palestinians, particularly those in the West Bank.

The permit and closure policies are, in fact, an illustration of a male mechanism that dictates how people live. The permit system decides for Gazans whether they’ll be able to exit, when and under what circumstances, as well as under what conditions they might return home, and how late they can stay out. These restrictions are very reminiscent of the restrictions and prohibitions all societies have, and many still do, imposed on women, and sometimes on other groups as well.

Israel grants permits arbitrarily, to people who it thinks are well behaved. The rest are punished and do not leave for years. Those who do get permits are usually allowed to leave in the morning and return by 7:00 p.m. Let’s recall Cinderella, a fairy tale from 1697. Many studies say her story is a chauvinistic one, but even Cinderella could stay out until midnight – that is, much later than Gaza residents.

The criteria for travel are extremely narrow, and relevant for very specific groups within the population. According to Gisha, the average monthly number of exits by Palestinians from Gaza – with its population of about 2 million, was about 12,000. In September 2000, it was 500,000. Israel stipulates extremely harsh conditions for exit, including not allowing relatives and accompanying persons to travel together, or not allowing exit at all if Israel does not see the urgency, or a justified reason. Israel decides. Israel rules.

This situation is very much akin to patriarchal systems that decide for women when they may leave, when they must return, with whom they may associate and under what circumstances. In other words, the closure Israel imposes on Gaza is patriarchal, chauvinistic, extremely primitive, and on top of it all, violent. In addition to the severe restrictions I have described, which are violent in themselves, we must not forget the more direct physical violence witnessed in the serious attacks on Gaza, the daily shooting of farmers in their land, fishermen out at sea, and more.

Permits for men only

They seek to exit Gaza, advance, and enrich Gaza with more and more professional and non-professional talent – because it is their right. A Gaza resident at Erez Crossing (Photo: Yonatan Zindel, Flash 90).
They seek to exit Gaza, advance, and enrich Gaza with more and more professional and non-professional talent – because it is their right. A Gaza resident at Erez Crossing (Photo: Yonatan Zindel/Flash 90).

Many studies show that politics, war and occupation harm women differently than men. Over the years in which I worked with Gisha, a human rights organization working for freedom of movement for Palestinians from Gaza, I constantly tried to investigate how the closure impacts women. Israel’s control over women living in Gaza, isolated from the rest of the world, had many facets, particularly in the context of the terrible wars that took a heavy toll on them. Gisha’s most recent report “The Concrete Ceiling: Women in Gaza on the impact of the closure on women in the workforce,” focuses on the financial aspect of women’s lives and examines how the closure impacts women in finance, commerce and the free professions in Gaza.

The women in the report speak about how they managed to break through societal impediments, but failed to overcome Israel’s unjustified, harsh restrictions. Maha Abu Sidu, a woman from Gaza who runs a small business and wants to travel to participate in fairs and exhibitions, or meet with fellow female traders outside Gaza, cannot do so — not because of societal or familial restrictions, but because Israel refuses her applications to exit. She notes in the report that she left Gaza for the first and only time when she was 35 years old. Let’s picture ourselves, each and every one of us, unable to travel anywhere for so many years. How would you feel?

Hiba al-Tamimi works as a co-director of an IT company. She says every time she applied for a permit to travel as part of her work, she was denied, while her male colleagues, did, until recently, receive permits. She wonders what could explain this other than Israel not wanting women to grow and develop professionally and economically. Dr. Riham al-Wahidi, who runs a consulting company, says she was invited to speak in a major conference about Palestinian economy. Her participation in this conference could have broken some misconceptions about women in Gaza, shown that they work, that they are professionals, educated, strong leaders, but her application to exit was denied, as Israel did not deem it justified. I’d like to note at this point, that for women who are farmers, or who stay in the home, women from disempowered groups, there’s no point in even bothering to apply for a travel permit, and they too are strong, society-building leaders, and they too have a right to travel and live their lives free of closure.

Unemployment among women in Gaza has increased significantly since the closure was imposed. So has violence against women. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, before the closure was imposed in 2005, unemployment among women was 35.2 percent. Now it is 65.3 percent. Unemployment among women with more than 13 years of education went up 38 percent between 2005 and 2015.

Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics figures on violence against women show that between December 2005 and January 2006, that is before the closure was imposed, 53.4 percent of all women were victims of emotional abuse by their spouses, 31.7 percent were victims of physical abuse, and 13.4 percent were victims of sexual abuse. In 2011, and according to the most recent publication from 2013 (Arabic) on this subject, the number of women subjected to emotional abuse has risen dramatically to 76.4 percent, with 38.4 percent of women being victims of physical abuse and 14.9 percent of sexual abuse. Activist women from Gaza with whom I’ve met and talked over the years say the closure is the main reason for the increase in violence in Gaza in general, and against women in particular. The above figures from the Palestinian statistics bureau back this up.

Usually, and at least from my experience as a Palestinian woman, the familial and societal constraints can be overcome, because people can be engaged. You talk to your society and your people. Even if it’s hard at first, and no one listens, and even if changing society’s approach takes effort, ultimately it does happen, and women do break the boundaries. Gaza women say so too. Noor Swirki’s recent op-ed makes that clear.

But facing Israeli policies and the restrictions they impose is an entirely different story. These women face a huge, impenetrable wall, made of people as well as concrete, mostly men, who hold the keys and block their way to freedom, liberty and basic rights. It is worth noting that this male dominated system will let them out if it serves its own interests, and if their exit would help the system’s image outside.

An education in feminism

Exit permit for four days, and then back to the world’s largest prison. Rafah Crossing, Gaza Strip, February 13, 2016 (Ezz Zanoun, Activestills).
Exit permit for four days, and then back to the world’s largest prison. Rafah Crossing, Gaza Strip, February 13, 2016 (Ezz Zanoun, Activestills).

Now, it’s important to say, particularly to those who pipe up as soon as we talk about Palestinian women’s rights and how the occupation and closure impact them: “But your own society discriminates against them too, so how can you ask Israel to compensate for the societal injustice?”: First, we, heaven forbid, are not asking the occupier for compensation for what our society puts us through. We’ll talk about societal oppression and solve it on our own. Some of the things might be solved once the closure is removed.

Secondly, do you expect a society that does not get to have a normal life to be normal? In the report about civil society we published at Gisha in March of 2016, feminist women from Gaza said they very much want to talk about women’s rights, and tirelessly work at it, but that it’s extremely difficult to talk feminism with a society that’s undergoing war, with people who live in tents or caravans, after their homes were destroyed, or people who are looking for vouchers for construction materials so they can rebuild the home they lost in the war, or a society that doesn’t even have clean drinking water, a society where more than 70 percent of the population gets humanitarian aid. Still, they do manage to change the lives of women from Gaza.

And so, this is why I see Gaza women as a model for power and resilience and an education in feminism. These are women who fight the patriarchy of society and the patriarchy of the occupation, and seek no compensation for any sort of injustice. What they seek is to live a normal life and exercise their basic rights, including the right to travel. They seek to exit Gaza, advance, and enrich Gaza with more and more professional and non-professional talent – because it is their right. They educate me. They help me go on investigating how occupation and closure hurt women most of all. I see them changing society, changing lives, under the untenable conditions in which they live. I also see how all the immense changes they initiate ultimately come to a head against the worst obstacle of all, the main reason they cannot move: Israel’s closure on Gaza.

Aya Zinatey, a feminist-political activist from Lod, has worked until recently as a researcher with Gisha, and is one of the authors of the report “The Concrete Ceiling.” This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call, and was translated by Maya Johnston.