‘I am proud of my work’: the women pushing boundaries in Gaza

Aseel Mousa & Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  April 3, 2023

Palestinian women are fighting back, despite personal losses and scarcity of opportunities in the conservative territory.

Rouzan al-Najjar, a paramedic from the Gaza Strip, knew that her work saving lives during the 2018 protests on the frontier with Israel challenged assumptions in the highly conservative Palestinian territory about the role of women.

“Being a medic is not only a job for a man,” the 21-year-old said in an interview shortly before she was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper.

“[Society] will be forced to accept us … The strength that I showed the first day of the protests, I dare you to find it in anyone else.”

An internal Israeli army investigation into her death that concluded last month found the medic was not deliberately targeted, a claim eyewitnesses have disputed. In death, as much as in life, Najjar continues to inspire. Shortly after Rouzan’s funeral, her mother, Sabreen, enrolled on a training course with the Palestinian Medical Relief Society. After four years in emergency medicine, she recently began working in a managerial role at the organisation.

“The pain I felt ignited my desire to prove how strong Palestinian mothers are and how they can do great things even when they are broken,” the 49-year-old said.

“I liked the idea of following in Rouzan’s footsteps and continuing her work. I am proud of my work and I will spare no effort to support the Palestinian people in peace and war.”

Gaza, a ribbon of land on the Mediterranean ruled by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, is one of the most miserable places in the world. Its population of 2.2 million has next to no freedom of movement, and healthcare, electricity, sanitation and other crucial infrastructure have all but collapsed since Israel and Egypt imposed a brutal blockade on the area after Hamas seized power in 2007.

Rounds of war and military escalations between Hamas and Israel over the last 16 years have traumatised an entire generation: almost half of the strip’s population is under 18 years old.

The blockade means that opportunities for independence are scarce, but even more so for women. According to data from the World Bank, just 18% of adult women in the occupied Palestinian territories are in work – with the vast majority of those living in the West Bank, even though women head 11% of households in the Gaza Strip.

Early marriage is a persistent problem. Around 15% of married women in Gaza experienced sexual abuse from their husbands in 2022, UN Women data says, but half of Palestinian women and 63% of Palestinian men believe that a woman should tolerate domestic violence in order to keep the family unit together.

Widows in Gaza have even more hurdles to navigate. The concept of shared matrimonial property does not exist, effectively denying women any legal claim to housing. There is also a cultural expectation to marry a brother or other relative of the deceased husband, and custody of children can revert to the husband’s family.

Shireen Abu Aita, now 39, was left to bring up her four children alone after her husband, Mohammed, an IT worker, was killed in the 2014 war, when an Israeli missile hit the house next door.

She is a social worker working with individuals with special needs, as well as caring for her boys, all of whom are still under 18. They all want to study medicine and engineering at university, and Abu Aita is determined to be able to afford the fees.

“If I didn’t have this job, I don’t know what I would do. I had to move on from my sadness to fight for my kids,” she said. “All I want is to create an honourable and decent life for my children.”

Hala Shehada, who also lost her husband, Khalid, in a bombing in the 2014 war, has strived to carve out an independent life for herself and the couple’s daughter, Tuleen, now eight. Khalid, who worked as a news photographer, died before the little girl was born.

Despite her grief and the pressures of raising a baby alone, Shehada managed to put herself through university, and in 2017 started her own wedding photography studio. The Israeli blockade caused many importing difficulties, she said, but business had been good: the 30-year-old has since also opened a women’s clothing shop.

Although Shehada had the rare chance to leave the strip for a job in Qatar, she was unable to take it, because Tuleen’s paternal grandparents would not allow her to travel.

“It is hard to be a widow in Gaza, and to succeed in Gaza, but Tuleen is my inspiration,” Shehada said of her entrepreneurial acumen. “She wants to be a pilot when she grows up.”

Aseel Mousa in Gaza

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian