Who is the real oppressor of Gaza women’s rights?

Yasmeen El Khoudary |The Electronic Intifada |Gaza Strip |22 July 2011

The fate of family members in Israeli prisons is of greater importance to women in Gaza than the “right” to ride a motorcycle.

(Wissam Nassar /Maan Images)

Recently, I was at a meeting with a foreign diplomat who wanted to hear about the problems that young people in Gaza face, and hear our suggestions for how the international community can lend a helping hand.

We were a group of seven young people of different professions and backgrounds. The hour and a half discussion touched on topics such as problems resulting from the Hamas-Fatah division and the lack of sport facilities in Gaza. Toward the end of the discussion a particularly quiet young woman in the group decided to speak out.

As a young woman in Gaza, I face a real problem.” Eagerly waiting for her contribution, I was expecting her to say that despite their higher university enrollment and success rates, young women in Gaza find very few job opportunities, for instance. “I am not convinced by the hijab [headscarf], but I cannot take it off.”

While this comment left the rest of the now embarrassed group trying to figure out a quick way to solve the mess, the look on the diplomat’s face signaled that she had just had an epiphany. The diplomat suggested that the international community she represents come to Gaza and teach its Hamas-suppressed people, particularly women, about their rights.

The story of our life: the White Man (and Woman) come to Palestine to teach us about our rights, while supporting the very entity that is continuously depriving us of them. In Gaza, add to that blaming the deprivation on the local government, and taking the burden off the real cause of this deprivation: Israel’s siege and occupation.

After the discussion was over, I spoke to the girl who made the comment, reminding her that the Hamas government does not ban girls from not wearing the hijab. If she comes from a conservative family or lives in a conservative area of the Gaza Strip, it’s not the government’s fault, and the foreign diplomat did not need to hear about it.

There’s a fine line between our mildly conservative traditions and the rules that Hamas imposes on our society, and the two need not be mixed for the sake of our image.

Yet, no matter how hard we try or how vocal we are, international media will always focus on personal issues that are not representative of the public to describe a “problem” faced by the general population. Why? It is because the issue of women’s rights in particular is such a sensitive one and using it is guaranteed to evoke anger or sympathy in the heart of the listener, regardless of the logic behind the argument.

For instance, a few months ago, a “unique” story was covered by several major news agencies that described the harshness of the Hamas regime in Gaza by stating that women in Gaza are not allowed to ride motorcycles.

This spurred a lot of talk and media attention among the good-hearted international media community, so very concerned about the situation of women under the Hamas government in Gaza.

But did any of these media agencies care to ask even as few as ten women in Gaza what they thought of the “right” to drive motorcycles? No, because they know that these women, who really have no time to spare on such needless matters, would have ridiculed them. The women would be more wiling to discuss real issues that matter to them, such as women in Israeli jails, poverty, lack of adequate health care, lack of education and job opportunities that are mainly attributable to the Israeli occupation.

Instead, international media decide to focus on mundane, yet “attractive” issues that affect very few women in Gaza, but that do a good job in ruining the image of Gaza and of Hamas. Real issues do not matter. Put aside issues that are caused by the occupation — we already know those, we are told. Tell us about problems caused by the Hamas government.

A year after the Hamas government imposed a law banning women from smoking water pipes in public places in Gaza, international media agencies still raise the issue when they cover the situation of women, even though the law was cancelled. And recently, news about banning male hairdressers from styling the hair of women has made headlines all over the world even though the issue is limited to hairdressers themselves and their customers, not the whole female population of the Gaza Strip.

I am against political affiliations, which is why my first and only affiliation is with Palestine and the Palestinian cause, not Fatah, Hamas or any other faction.

But I cannot stand the hypocrisy of international media in exploiting a subject as sensitive as women’s rights to lift the burden off of Israel’s shoulders.

When will the world understand that the deterioration of the situation of women in Gaza over the past four years is not solely attributed to Hamas’ control, but mainly because of the Israeli siege, which tends to be left out in such discussions? I take pride in saying that Gaza in particular and Palestine in general is one of the few places in the world where women and men enjoy equality in rights — or rather equality in the lack thereof.

Indeed, Israel implements excellent standards of affirmative action in making sure that both men and women are equally deprived of their most basic human rights, so please stop attributing the results of this deprivation to others whose role in the grand scheme of our lives is marginal.

Yasmeen El Khoudary is a freelance writer and researcher based in Gaza City, Palestine. Her blog is yelkhoudary.blogspot.com and she can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.

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