March 28, 2015, Sisterhood is still powerful

The Al Bureij refugee camp is located in the Middle Governate of Gaza on the eastern side of the main north/south road, Salah-ed-deen, which used to run from Khan Yunis to Erez check point, with Al Nuseirat camp on the western side. I am on my way to visit with Al Zahraa Society for Woman and Child Development which is located in Al Bureij. In the last few years, three women’s organizations spun off from the Gaza Community Mental Health program: Aisha, (which is the name of one of the Prophet Mohammad’s wives), in the center to north of the Strip, Al Zahraa (which means flower) in the middle, and Rafah Wefaq (which means accord) in the south. There were a number of painful organizational issues, but financing has been a major challenge. They got funds previously from PGS/Sweden and the Global Fund for Women.

Another delegate and I meet with the administrative leadership of Al Zahraa and then I meet with a group of women who are receiving psychosocial support, crafts and vocational training.  We sit in a small office, sipping Arabic coffee, and talking over the loud din of voices in the central areas of the building where women are working and talking energetically.  Although I have permission to write this essay, because I am reporting on personal, sensitive issues I am not using the women’s names and I have blended their stories to protect their privacy.

The main role of Al Zahraa is to support women from violence: physical, sexual, cultural, etc., to provide empowerment, awareness, and consultation, individual and group psychosocial support and links to organizations in society for further support and intervention.

If a woman suffers from a psychological disorder, she may receive treatment with organizations like the Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP) or the Palestinian Center for Dispute and Conflict Resolution.  Some vulnerable women get vocational training (like hairdressing) so they can get a job; there are negotiations with families to allow this, there is coordination with education ministries and universities for women to go to school.

The programs from this tiny agency are impressive. Female high school students are offered sessions on gender awareness and sexual education, hospital staff are trained to be sensitive to gender based violence and diagnosis; starting with the basic principles: Ask the woman who committed the violence against her and offer her personal and legal supports, consultation and referrals. The women have worked on changing discriminatory laws around the custody of children where women tend to lose that battle.  They have worked on the issue of honor killings.  I am told that men receive a reduced sentence in prison but if a woman is guilty of a sexual transgression, she is killed, often by her male relatives. Women are disadvantaged both culturally and politically.  They hold only 20% of political positions and are not in positions of power in the government or the political parties.

During the 2014 assault, the refugee camp, Al Bureij, which is on the border with Israel, was evacuated after shooting started, the most vulnerable as usual were people living in marginalized areas on the borders. Al Zahraa coordinates with other organizations to offer humanitarian and financial support for displaced people who are in UNRWA shelters. They also coordinate with Islamic Relief in coordination with civil society committees.  (We are offered small cups of coffee, juice and each of us given an embroidered purse as we talk. The feeding and the giving are so central to this culture, even when the needs of the givers are so great.)

While working as a women’s department under the umbrella of GCMHP, the staff realized that women were very focused on their children so the work was expanded to include women and children development, psychosocial support, working with Mercy Corp which is a large organization that partners with USAID.  I learn that a number of organizations refuse USAID support because they have to sign an agreement that they are against “terrorism” but they know that the definition of “terrorism” includes militant Palestinians but not Israeli aggressors and human rights violators.

I am very curious about the power dynamics and cultural norms of marriage in this society.  I am told that there are legal rights for married women but it gets complicated quickly.  A married woman is given a dowry by her husband which is supposed to function as a kind of insurance policy for the woman if the marriage goes bad. In real life, an unscrupulous husband sometimes takes the dowry money and leaves the woman with nothing, or a woman technically inherits money from her family but the family finds ways to deprive her of this right, that moment where culture, sexism, and economics clashes with law. Somewhat like the US when an abused woman goes to the police and often finds herself in even greater danger, if a Palestinian women goes to the police, she is at risk for punishment by her family, including divorce, and police mainly considers the cultural dimensions and often advise her to go to the Mukhtar, the head of the family or clan.  Some Mukhtars are fair to women, others not. There are, needless to say, no “Mukhtaras”. There are also male religious mediator/committees. I learn from the psychiatrist I am with that in the US there is project empowering women to be Mukhtars and some are actually functioning that way. Check out facebook: Faten Harb who lives in Gaza in the middle area for the Gazan version.

But what is it like really for women here?  One spunky woman recounts her bachelor’s degree and two graduate degrees including study abroad, (plus she had passed the old age of 30), the indirect financial pressure she felt to marry someone she now realizes is unsuitable, and yet despite her professional job and tremendous accomplishments, she is still unable to decide where her children go to school because her husband has the final word in the family. She knows other women who were more directly forced to marry and after the honking cars, and huge plastic floral arrangements and nuptial feast for a ridiculously large number of relatives, there is immediately huge pressure to have children, preferably of the male variety.

Another woman whose husband is unemployed, (big problem in Gaza due to death of much of the functional economy), explains that if you are the only one earning a living, that actually gives you power in the marriage, although it may not give you happiness. Husbands often pressure their wives to stop working or feel stigmatized and shamed if the male in the family is unable to find employment or suffering from PTSD from war trauma or torture in prisons.

I ask, “Can a woman be raped in marriage?” and receive the quick reply, “Yes. According to religion you cannot say no.  The problem is that people misinterpret religion, but religion also says be gentle with the woman,” so people read the Quran and Hadiths selectively (note: as in all known religions).  Women also get that you-have-got-to-be-available message and thus fear that if they do not have relations on demand with their husbands, they will find a second wife who is more cooperative.

I push a little further and learn that incest and rape do happen (like in all other societies) but because the culture is conservative and religious it is actually rare. With the tightening of the noose around Gaza, the increasing unemployment and humiliation of the male population, women (as usual) bear the brunt of male rage.  Not surprisingly, honor killings in the West Bank and Gaza are up: eight in 2011, twelve in 2012, 28 in 2013.  I have also heard that honor killings are often reported as suicides or accidents so I suspect these numbers are artificially low.  Bureij Camp had the highest number of honor killings after the takeover of Hamas and in one particularly gruesome tragic story, a man in the camp cut off his daughter’s head and took it to the police station when she was accused of having sex with a man. It is also possible that some people may kill their daughters to prevent them from claiming their inheritance and UNDP has set up legal aid for women, opening the door for women for legal consultation and representation, and creating a massive awareness campaign.

In a less egregious example, one women shares the story of her brother’s wife who owned land in northern Gaza (here I am thinking that this land has probably already been claimed as a shoot-to-kill buffer zone by the IDF so there are so many ways this woman can get screwed). Through legal manipulations, she was forced to sign over almost all of the land to her brother with the caveat that when she is ready to sell her portion she has to sell it to said brother at below market rate.

And then I have heard all of these wicked witch of the west type stories about mothers-in-law and new wives coming to live with their husbands’ families and being emotionally tortured. (Oh but we have those in the US as well, just pointing that out.) I am told that this was more of a problem in the past but now a majority of men get married and live in an external apartment and get away from the nuclear family. In the emotional and cultural world, however, one woman confides, “there is conflict forever between the wife and mother-in-law.  If a woman is working and will not pay the mother-in-law, then the grandmother won’t take care of children, or if there is a large extended family and a flock of daughters-in-law, there is discrimination between them and this creates conflict, always there is conflict.” Another woman reflects on a horrific case where a mother-in-law and her daughters killed her daughter-in-law in Khan Yunis.  I am reassured that this is really rare.

I have noticed that there are very dark Palestinians in Gaza, (also Jerusalem and Jericho) and I wonder how racism fits into the culture scheme.  I learn that there is a term “slave Palestinian” referring to people who came from places like Sudan to work in the region and they have faced many decades of the usual varieties of racism.  Apparently someone asked a white male administrator about racism and he denied this problem exists, (another I am not a racist type?). I was told, “If you want to know about discrimination, ask a black person.” They are teased in school because of their hair, children sometimes throw stones at them, lighter skinned Arabs don’t interfere with cases of harassment by children. Although this is contrary to Islamic religion, white families shun black families, white families will refuse to attend the wedding of their son or daughter marrying a black Palestinian.  In another quirk, Palestinian men who get educated abroad, sometimes bring home their lovely white Romanian/Russian/name your country wife, which then reduces the pool of available white men so more white women are marrying Black Palestinian men leaving the Black women once again at the bottom of the selection pool.

Even today one woman reported on the difficulties her child is having in school where she is in a high quality school that is almost all “white.” 99% of black Gazans are poor, they very rarely get well educated, they rarely get employment.  They cannot afford to go to privileged or superior schools, teachers discriminate against these students who often drop out.  The majority who stay in school are girls, they often work as cleaning women for well off Gazans to pay for their educations.  They are more motivated to go to school but rarely can afford attending the higher level universities and struggle to find good jobs.

I also learn of families that are suffering from the toll of domestic violence, fathers, (who are often unemployed, depressed, humiliated, traumatized by war and prison and all of the things that stimulate male rage but do not excuse it) beating their wives and children. Wives are trapped in conservative families, afraid to report their husbands to the police, entire families desperately in need of a thousand interventions.

I am feeling a bit run over by now, and it is time to change rooms and meet with a group of 30 women who want to talk about…. Well I am a gynecologist, the niqabs are flipped up, women are obviously yearning for knowledge and thrilled that this doctor lady has just dropped in (along with a copy of Our Body Ourselves in Arabic).  We launch into an utterly frank conversation about everything anyone wants to know about the female body.  So we talk shamelessly without embarrassment about vaginas and yeast, ovaries, sex, birth control, over active bladders, back pain, how to make a male baby, menses; for me a totally fun sharing of questions and information, woman to woman, just the way I like to do medicine and these women are just like women everywhere in my experience.

I also am invited into the crafts room to admire the embroidery and other crafts, and soon I am handing over my shekels to become the happy owner of a very unusual shawl with lovely sandy brown to orange embroidery with bits of sparkle.  Everyone is beaming and laughing. We are all sharing our expertise, celebrating our connections, and our powerful sisterhood.

When I first entered the center I noticed that there was a (training) hair salon and I mention I would be honored to pay a visit to the salon.  The woman who clearly knows what she is doing, takes my hand and soon I am sitting in a chair with a cluster of women all offering advice, showing me wedding photos of them without their hijabs, hair movie star coiffed, and I am wondering, what have I gotten myself into? (For those of you who do not know me, my husband trims my hair every few months and that is the full extent of my salon experience.)  It seems the technique here is to clip up bunches of hair in little balls, take a hot dryer and take each ball and pull and dry it until every hair is very straight.  There is general admiration and a most universal conversation with the dark skinned woman who bemoans her African hair, the irritations from hair relaxers, the cost of extensions and braids.  Where am I?  I suggest that maybe she could just learn to love her hair?

I am informed that I really need to take care of my split ends! The beauty transformation is met with major appreciation and then one women suggests I really should do something about my unfashionable bushy eyebrows and faint mustache.  I am not about to go that route (I do stay true to my flower child roots) and suggest, how about make up? Soon my fashionistas are consulting about what color powder, creams, eye shadow and who knows what else are needed to complete my make over.  I go for the full effect eyeliner, lashes, kohl.  This is all met with that kind of connectedness and pleasure in the simple joys of sharing and laughter that makes sisterhood so powerful.

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Alice after hair and make up at the salon at Al Zahraa Society for Woman and Child Development

A roller coaster day: I take my new face and light heart with two women to make a home visit at the camp to see a woman who lost her husband in the 2014 assault.  We walk into a moderately bare apartment she is renting, I sit on one of the mattresses along the wall; there is a poster of her husband, green head band, Kalashnikov ready.  She is 40 years old, has five daughters, two sons, three miscarriages and is still recovering from a C-section. We joke, she says she was once beautiful and even when married, men were interested in her.  A young teenage girl brings in glasses of Coke, a dumpling of a baby in yellow flannel squawks to be nursed.

When I ask her would she feel comfortable talking about what happened, the mood changes dramatically. The tears are flowing as her voice becomes very soft and whispery, she seems disconnected, I wonder if she is having a flashback. She says she tried to watch a video of her husband and felt suffocated. Her grief is fresh and powerful. She also has seven children and no means of support.

“I was very close to him, when I feel worried he always assured me he will be okay.  He was my cousin, very close, very worried.  I don’t sleep until he comes home.” When he died she was unconscious for four days in shock, her face contorts in pain. “Although I know he went to paradise, I miss him all the time, sometimes I talk to his picture.” She does not want me to take a photo of his poster because she is not ready to share him.

They were married when she was 18, he was 27, he was a farmer living on the eastern border of the Gaza Strip in Johr El Deek. When the shooting started, they were forced to leave their home. “Though I left the border area to be more safe, I was saying I will return back to my home. I was insisting to go home.  One day he said, ‘Let’s go.’ He went up on the roof to sleep as it was hot…. After a while he came down.  I was about to pray,” and she saw him floating down the stairs, “flying, his beard turned white, his wrinkles disappeared, his brown teeth turned white. I cannot understand what I saw. He came down, we sit with each with other, it was Ramadan.” She is speaking very softly. She made him and her kids breakfast and did not share it with them, just sat in front of the home; he came to her wondering why she did not want to eat and asked if she wants him to bring the food outside for her, she refused and accepted only a glass of water. Her face is almost trancelike. “After he finished, he went out.  I said stay. He told me he will hurry.  ‘Don’t be late.’  He hesitated twice and said, ‘I will not be late.’”

The electricity was out “as usual.  Suddenly I heard a loud voice and saw a big flash of light, I found myself beating my head.  The missile went directly to her husband’s head. The accident was eight meters from home.” At the beginning they told her that he was injured, she mentioned that one day before the accident he was nervous, talking about death.

“He was targeted by an Israeli airplane and the plane called the ambulance and told them not to rescue him or to pick up the body.” It took them a day to find his missing arm. As soon as he was shot relatives called and she wanted to evacuate him.  “I will carry him to the hospital even if I’m pregnant I could pull him.” A relative said no and she felt he was dead.

Her home was demolished 20 days later.

“I cannot describe, the children could not stop crying.  I told them he went to paradise. He was everything for us. They carried me to say goodbye to him, I was shivering.  They were in a hurry to bring him to the cemetery because shooting all the time, it was very fast.  They took me to the hospital and then took me to my family home.” She was then told to evacuate that home and she came to Bureij Camp and some cousins.  There was another shooting and she fled to Deir Balah area.

She reports that during the war, the IDF called people in Bureij on mobiles and told them to leave to Deir Balah. She heard a loud speaker warning and a direct call to her son.  When told to evacuate, he retorted “Why? I don’t want civilians to be affected! Really were you worried about all the thousands of civilians that you have killed. Do whatever you want.”

During the war she remembers planes flew over Gaza and dropped leaflets with the names of kill targets. After her husband died lots of leaflets included the names of those already killed, including his.

She is now renting in Bureij Camp. UNRWA paid the first payment, she paid the second. She doesn’t know how she will pay this month.  All she has are her children. She hears rumors that the government will build housing units. She does not know how to negotiate with her landlord, “the owner is shy.”   We leave her breastfeeding her baby.  What can we say?