Travel restrictions on women cause family ruptures in Gaza

The Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel (Mamud Hams - AFP)

Rakan Abed & Khuloud Rabah Sulaiman

The Electronic Intifada  /  May 9, 2022

Wafa, a 28-year-old business administration graduate, recently lost a job in Turkey because she couldn’t leave Gaza.

The obstacle? Her father, who objected to her traveling abroad alone.

His reasoning? A woman cannot and should not face life’s challenges without a man to protect her, either a husband, father or brother.

The background?

In February 2021, Gaza’s Supreme Judicial Council adopted legislation allowing a male guardian to get a court order barring a woman or girl from traveling if doing so puts them at risk.

What exactly constitutes such a risk – or “absolute harm” in the language of the legislation – is left ambiguous, perhaps intentionally so. The upshot is, if a girl’s guardian – a father, grandfather, brother or uncle – obtains a court-ordered prohibition, she will be barred from leaving Gaza even before a judge reaches a decision.

This is what happened to Wafa, who did not want to give her real name for this article.

Wafa had secured a job offer from a Turkish company as a content writer. But when she told her father that she was planning to leave, he refused her permission. Her brother also was not to be moved.

“I had a glimmer of hope every time I tried to persuade my father and brother to embrace the notion of my travel, but they always let me down,” she told The Electronic Intifada.

“Shortly after receiving notification from the employer that I would lose the job if I didn’t get there soon, I tried one final time with my family. But nothing changed.”

Condemnation

Human Rights Watch condemned the judicial decision, which, the New York based rights group said “violates women’s right to leave their own country without discrimination under international human rights law.”

The group cited the case of Afaf al-Najar, 19, who was denied the opportunity to pursue her bachelor’s degree in Turkey last September after her father issued a travel suspension order.

Wafa, like al-Najar, is intent on keeping her dreams alive.

But she concedes that her family has almost destroyed her ambitions. With a sky high unemployment rate – over 50 percent – many young people see no option but to leave Gaza to further themselves and their careers.

Wafa’s own brother was allowed to leave to seek his fortune outside Gaza, making her even angrier when she eventually lost the job in Turkey.

“I isolated myself in my bedroom for weeks, away from my family and friends,” she said. “After they smashed my ambition to work outside, I felt my life had become meaningless.”

Her work as a Search Engine Optimization content writer in Gaza earns her a little more than most other jobs available, but everyone is troubled by Gaza’s desperate economy. Wafa still dreams of leaving.

“I feel like a prisoner looking forward to seeing the sun and breathing fresh air on my release day,” she resumed. “The release day will be when my father enables me to travel and realize my now-buried ambitions.”

Violating international law

It is not just civil society that is objecting to the new rule. The restriction on women’s travel rights violates the Palestinian constitution, the Basic Law, Zainab al-Ghanimi, director of the Center for Women’s Legal Research and Consulting, told The Electronic Intifada.

The new rule contains broad and imprecise phrases that could be used against women to restrict their freedom of movement, al-Ghanimi said, contradicting Basic Law articles 11 and 20, which prohibit restrictions on movement, as well as article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

“I don’t see why we need a man’s permission to travel, whether we’re married or not,” she said.

Al-Ghanimi said Gaza’s judiciary council reached its decision after a few instances of women traveling without alerting their parents and after disagreements in the family. But this, she said, should in no way justify an “irrational” law that goes against international treaties, “devaluing women in Gazan culture.”

“This is preposterous and insulting to many women who hold high-ranking professional positions in industries where their spouses couldn’t compete,” she continued, stressing that women in Gaza are often achieve better school results than men.

Gaza, according to Yaseen Abu Odeh of the Palestinian Working Woman Society for Development, is still a patriarchal society with traditions that limit women’s rights and are passed down through the generations.

While some traditions, such as traveling, have changed over time, women’s freedom to make their own travel decisions has remained restricted.

Attitudes are informed culturally by the sense that women are more vulnerable and therefore more threatened. In addition, Abu Odeh said, men are taught to be concerned for their daughters’ or sisters’ “honor,” an honor that would be sullied even by being sexually harassed by strangers.

Society values female “honor” above all else, Abu Odeh added, even if it means limiting women’s freedom to engage with society. As a result, where travel forges the ability to deal with life’s challenges and molds independent personalities, travel restrictions have created generations of women psychologically reliant on their male relatives.

Burying ambitions

Amira, 28, has been jobless since being forced by her father to return to Gaza last year after completing her master’s degree in Jordan. Despite the fact that she had been offered a job with a Jordanian organization, her father refused to let her stay.

According to Amira, he had told her that “we have no daughters who live away from us.”

“I cannot comprehend how my father could deny me my desire to work, especially after I had been hired,” Amira, who also did not want to give her real name for this article, told The Electronic Intifada. “I got a master’s degree in order to seek work in Jordan.”

She contemplated staying in spite of her father’s wishes but feared “he’d fly to Jordan, where I’d been staying, and forcefully” bring her back to Gaza.

“I was also frightened of being mistreated, physically and emotionally.”

Amira had already been through a lot. It took her two months to persuade her father to let her fly to Jordan to pursue a two-year master’s degree in chemistry even though she had been granted a Jordanian government scholarship because he was concerned about her safety while she was away from her family.

“I felt like I was in heaven when I learned my mum had finally persuaded him,” Amira said.

The moment was fleeting. “Unfortunately, I caved in to my father’s demands and returned to Gaza. Here I’ve buried my ambitions.”

Israa, 26, is a freelance web developer in Jordan, who also did not want to give her real name for this article. She persisted in demanding to leave Gaza until finally her parents gave in.

“Getting my family’s permission was challenging, despite the fact that I’m old enough,” she said. “But I kept trying for more than five months, and finally I was able to get the permission.”

Israa fled Gaza last year in part to escape the Strip’s dated customs.

“My older sister and my parents fought for at least six years over her rejection of traditional marriage. My parents made no effort to understand her point of view,” Israa told The Electronic Intifada.

Her parents were concerned that her sister, who is now 29, would remain unmarried after turning 25. She has not yet married.

Traditionally, women are expected to marry when they are between 18 and 25. Any older, traditional thinking has it, and it could cause problems with getting pregnant or giving birth.

“I don’t want to go through a similar experience because neither my sister nor I ever believed in traditional marriage or that love comes after marriage,” she said.

Israa also wants to dress without interference, something she was unable to do because her parents objected. Her style is different from Gaza’s traditional norms. That caused neighbors and relatives to start gossiping and emotional distress for her family in turn.

“I didn’t want to get into a confrontation with them about something so insignificant. But it hurts when you believe you can’t achieve what you want and aren’t self-sufficient,” she said.

In Jordan, it’s different. She feels freer and in control. She wears what she wants and stays out if she feels like it.

“I’m pleased that I’m no longer bound by outdated Gazan norms,” she said.

Rakan Abed is a freelance reporter and video producer based in the Gaza Strip

Khuloud Rabah Sulaiman is a journalist living in Gaza