The UN OCHA data is blunt: The 2014 military operation in Gaza left 302 women and 582 children dead, 10,870 wounded, (2,120 women and 3,303 children), and more than 450,000 people displaced from their homes, mostly women and children. That humanitarian catastrophe was compounded by a severely distressed society strangled by years of blockade and siege, increasingly more fundamentalist Islamic culture and religious practices, and dramatic restrictions in options for everyone.
So how does that look up close and personal? Mariam Abu al-Atta, management administrator, and Israa Al Battrikhi, project coordinator, welcome me to the Aish Association for women with husbands who are mentally ill or addicted; these are the living and breathing families who have literally fallen off the curve. Fourteen women wait for us at a U shaped conference room with one girl and one boy snuggled close; the women are sketching on paper with colored pencils as part of their intake process. I estimate the age range is 30 to 50, although I could be monumentally off as women not surprisingly age prematurely under occupation and repeated trauma. Everyone wears a hijab, most of the faces are not covered, everyone has a chance to tell her story and in subsequent weeks there will be group and individual sessions, various counseling, legal advice, job training, and other supports offered. At some point, almost every woman begins to weep, clutching tissues, and towards the end even our interpreter also bursts into tears. I am glad that even she has a limit to what she can absorb before losing her professional distance. Despite the lively persistent voices, the occasional twinkle in an eye or laughter (“maybe it would be better if our husbands just stayed in bed sleeping”), the amount of accumulated suffering in this room is stunning.
I will summarize some of the themes that develop, though every woman’s story is intimately her own.
- Many of the men were diagnosed with mental illness either before or after marriage (don’t worry he will get better) and this was often compounded by drug addiction and disabilities, some related to work accidents. Tramadol seems to be the drug of choice although there is some hashish as well. Many also had seizure disorders and a variety of mostly head injuries due to repeated falls, leading me to wonder about how diagnoses are made, the adequacy of treatment, and medical and psychological follow up which obviously in a health care system that is repeatedly assaulted and in a chronic state of collapse, is likely less than optimal.
- Many of the men steal from their families, lie, even sell their UNRWA coupons, and connive in various destructive ways to support their drug habits. This leaves women responsible for the household without any economic means.
- The children also suffer from more than the average level of disease burden, probably related to the high level of marriage to first cousins and other close relatives, (big problem in Gaza where few can get a permit to leave and check out the rest of the gene pool) the unhealthy environment and toxic load from war (may of the young children have already lived through three major assaults), malnutrition, and lack of quality care.
- When women marry (often in their teens, some with extreme family pressure), they tend to move into their husband’s already overcrowded homes where grandparents, (think controlling mother-in-law who cannot see any fault in her son), multiple other siblings and their growing families are vying for a shrinking amount of space without privacy or healthy boundaries, jealousy and competition abound. I think of the animal experiments where rats or was it fish or hamsters….are placed in shrinking cages until all end up attacking each other. Well guess what happens to humans, especially when you throw in some addiction, war, death, and PTSD?
- Every woman reports verbal abuse, physical beatings and sometimes sexual assault from husbands, brothers-in-law, fathers-in-law and verbal and physical abuse of their children whom they try unsuccessfully to protect. One woman’s arm was bandaged due to a fracture after being pushed down the stairs.
- Poverty is rampant with husbands who are unable to work, families already stretched economically, and a reliance on the social affairs department. Women have sold all their nuptial gold to survive. There is no backup plan.
- The women are clearly depressed, one thinks of suicide, but then she thinks of her children, “We are not a normal family; all I want is one room that I own.” Even now, her children “only get one meal per day, using UNRWA coupons,” which her husband tries to sell. Many talked about wanting to educate their children in university and the difficulty in financing those dreams. Some see their children turning violent, out of control, addicted, and mirroring their fathers. The mothers desperately want to save them from that fate.
- The war in 2014 led families to move repeatedly, face extraordinary financial hardships, some babies were born, some were lost, families face marked reductions in electricity and drinkable water.
- The last woman had a daughter who married a man who became a drug addict. The daughter fled back to her family and hired the Palestinian version of a coyote who smuggled her and her five children through the tunnels to slip onto a boat to Italy and freedom. The ship sank and the family was lost. At this point we are all weeping.
When I sink into stereotypical thoughts about tyrannical Arab families and dominating mother-in-laws, and the repressive role of fundamentalist Islamic family relationships, I quickly remember the sexual abuse of children that has poisoned the Catholic Church, the 25% of women in the US who report sexual abuse, the rampant rape of women in our armed forces and college campuses, the appalling prevalence of domestic violence in our lovely enlightened Western societies, not to mention the unspoken crisis of domestic violence amongst ultra-orthodox Jewish families from Brooklyn to Jerusalem. Let us not judge. What we do know is that the more crushing the economy and political landscape the more oppressed and constricted the lives of women will be. This is the task for feminists and all people who understand the intersections between war, patriarchy, psychological illness, domestic violence and the cultures that make this all possible. The dedicated women of Aish are taking the first steps on a long and challenging journey and deserve our sisterly support.