Gaza, not more than 360 square kilometres, may be a tiny spot of land on the map, but for many around the world it has become legendary, the embodiment of steadfastness and perseverance for an epoch.
Currently bled dry by the Siege imposed for three years now, it still prides itself on teaching the rest of the world what dignity and honour mean. Impoverished families whose houses were demolished in front of their eyes remain unbowed, not willing to give up. Families who lost loved ones in their battle for freedom are determined more than ever. Their plights and misfortunes have only made them stronger, more adamant in their pursuit of liberty. This is the image with which we welcome a visitor to Gaza.
Four years ago, it was an everyday occurrence to hear clashes of gunfire in the streets of Gaza, Palestinian on Palestinian gunfire or Israeli incursions. Above our heads and whenever they wished to, the Israeli Occupation Air Forces could strike a car, a house or a person without prior warning. My home used to be a peaceful area, but I remember four years ago hearing an exchange of heavy gunfire so close that I decided to call the police emergency number: it felt as if the bullets were about to come through my windows. I was worried about my newborn babies. The best answer I could muster from the emergency service was:" What can I do sister, it's a chaotic country we live in".
As you walk along the streets and alleys, today, you will see ordinary people, children playing in the streets and alleys, men and women rushing back from their jobs, and order and security back in the streets from which they have long been absent. How, you might ask, can the people of Gaza go about their ordinary lives after such a horrific war? Are they pretending that nothing has happened or is it something else? Yes: it is something else. On this holy land, there is no place for cowardice or retreat. One has only one recourse which is to heal the wounds, wipe the tears and move on. It is one of those situations which echoes: To be or not to be. The people of Gaza have chosen to be.
Before the war, life in Gaza was already under the Siege. With all the implications and complications of that modus vivendi, everyday life was still taking place. Women too have achieved remarkable successes in parliament as well as all the other spheres of life. Women have shared the many responsibilities of men. They have been appointed as ministers, and nominated as MPs. They have also been employed as policewomen. All these challenges took place following the 2006 elections. The misconceptions, which the world and even many local people here have is that women are not involved in society, let alone politics. But come to Gaza yourself and you will clearly see that almost every public sector you mention depends on female workers.
When Hamas won its majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), many people were apprehensive about what would happen to women's' rights and liberties. Those people believed that the new government would infringe such rights by imposing a dress code such as the obligation to wear a Hijab, or by restricting their role in public life. When Hamas speakers were invited to address public platforms at conferences, or participate in workshops, whether locally or in foreign parts - it was the same story. They would be invited to speak about their prospective plans regarding the role of women. Many asked themselves: will it be like Taliban?
But as soon as the new government was formed, what they said was put into practise for everyone to see. Contrary to those suspicions, the government proved to respect personal liberties. There was not even one case reported where a woman was mistreated or admonished for improper dressing, as many had feared. What was significant and noticeable was the considerable increase in the number of women participating in political and public life
Following the 2006 elections, the number of women's NGO's increased, reflecting the new government's interest in fostering women and children.
This made a difference both in terms of quantity and quality. For example, the role of women in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) was appreciably enhanced. The presence of women in the Legislative Council was no longer merely formal or tokenistic, to fulfil some kind of quota, with women performing a narrow set of activities. The Palestinian woman in the Legislative Council is not an outsider, for one thing: she comes from the same Palestinian community - she lives alongside the people she represents in all their travails. Her cares and concerns are the cares and concerns of the common Palestinian woman.
Secondly, in the Legislative Council, we have seen women's issues rise up the agenda. One example of this is enactment of the Amended Family Law which gives the widowed woman who chooses not to remarry the right to keep full and permanent custody of her children. The women of the PLC carry out a wide range of activities like visiting the families of people who have been martyred in the conflict, their widows and orphans. They also take part in leading official and public demonstrations and protestations. They listen to the complaints of employees and work out solutions for their grievances. Women's tasks also include monitoring public officialdom: they may question and hold public officials to account if they fail to fulfill their duties. Another law which is currently being drafted is the Families of Martyrs Law.
Etimad Altarshawi, the Media and Communications General Manager of the Ministry of Women's Affairs says:
"Women's affairs are at the core of our cares. We are doing all we can to empower women at all levels of political, economic and social development. There are a number of small projects which women's societies are carrying out under the supervision of the Ministry of Women's Affairs. One of these projects is the Rabbit Breeding Project. In this project, the Ministry provided a number of women who live in rural areas and have expertise in rabbit breeding with a number of rabbits and high quality cages for them, so that they can start their own business. By giving them a head start in this way, the hope is that these women will become self-sufficient and able to fulfil the needs of their families."
For widows, Etimad Altarshawi mentions another initiative: "Another significant project which has been implemented in the central parts of Gaza strip is establishing the Centre for Productive Hands. This centre provides these widows with special training in a number of fields which can help them find jobs to support their families. The Ministry is presently preparing a conference entitled: ‘The Widow's Right to Live in Dignity'".
The same Ministry has also implemented a project for the psychosocial support of women, children and families of martyrs in the aftermath of the late Israeli war on Gaza.
In Gaza, it is more natural to think of death than it is of life. Sky gazing, which used to be a favourite pastime of mine, has turned into a gloomy and ghastly experience. The hovering of choppers and drones continue to spoil the serenity and beauty of the sky I used to know. On the ground, as you walk in the streets the walls are daubed with graffiti about martyrs. I pass a coffin cloth maker on my way home from work and think of how this man makes a fortune from death. I pass by the cemetery which is inside the city and see a sign that reads: "There is no more room for burial here", which people ignore because it is hard to make it to the one located in the eastern part of city, close to Israeli borders. The children have developed their own worries and fears. Their innocent childhood has had to bear unbearable things. They have not been spared from the air strikes and have become an easy target for the Occupation. As a grown up, when you watch them shivering or crying when they hear a plane, your heart is shattered.
As days pass by you watch your children grow into inquisitive youngsters. By age five or even less, they can tell what kind of plane is hovering above. Occupation is the primary source of disorder and displacement in Gaza for all of us: anything else is secondary.
But life still goes on. Moreover, this lack of everything almost including our basic necessities does not include our morale and optimism. It does not include our resolve or faith. The people of Gaza have seen their small cities tumbling down before their eyes during the war. They have seen their loved ones shot or burned to death in the most brutal way. These scars may be very hard to heal, but we Palestinians have also learned that sixty one years of struggle are too precious to waste.
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