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Gazan Women Advance Unexpectedly Amid Pandemic, Despite Social Barriers
Sheikheleid family members train in their makeshift rooftop karate club, Rafah Governorate, Gaza Strip, April 12, 2020. (Abed Deeb)

Gazan Women Advance Unexpectedly Amid Pandemic, Despite Social Barriers

The Strip is seeing a slow erosion of some traditions that have long derailed girls’ progress

With more than 170,000 dead from the global coronavirus pandemic and whole societies under lockdown and facing economic collapse, the pain seems endless. However, some good is also emerging from the disaster.

Women in conservative cultures such as those of the Middle East, as elsewhere, are standing shoulder to shoulder with men in the struggle against the deadly disease, and some are making progress in societies where women generally exercise little independence.

In the densely populated Gaza Strip, more women are starting to ignore old, unequal traditional norms, experiencing a wider space of freedom and creativity.

The Media Line observed several models of Gazan women who refuse to surrender to gender-based injustice, challenging social barriers and playing important roles amid the pandemic.

Eilya Alzra’ei, Riham Basheer and friends, using a colorful bicycle with a sign affixed that says, “We have a life,” distribute storybooks, paper and crayons to children in refugee camps so they can have fun while stuck at home and, at the same time, to encourage them to read.

(Right to left) Eilya Alzra’ei, Riham Basheer and a friend distributing storybooks, paper, and crayons, Deir Albalah camp, April 11, 2020. (Courtesy)

The initiative, sponsored by the library of the Women’s Program Center in Deir al-Balah Governorate and the Tamer Institute for Community Education, has reached more than 60 families since its start last week.

“Every Saturday, we distribute storybooks for children and then we collect them on Tuesday to give them to new kids,” Alzra’ei told The Media Line. “I loved the kids’ reaction. Every single time we go there, kids sitting on windowsills keep telling us to come back again.”

Eilya Alzra’ei (right) and Riham Basheer distributing storybooks, paper, and crayons, Deir Albalah camp, April 11, 2020. (Courtesy)

The energetic young woman began volunteering in the community five years ago. She stressed the importance of familial support in developing girls’ characters and personalities. “I’m blessed to have a supportive family that keeps pushing me forward and respects my decisions,” she said.

Her friend Riham Basheer, a talented fashion designer, pointed to the obstacles girls face in such a conservative society.

“We can’t deny the negative perceptions that frustrate women and limit their ambitions. I see some who resent our determination to move ahead, but I actually don’t pay them that much attention because I’m confident and I know things are changing now and society is little by little becoming more familiar with what we are doing,” she told The Media Line.

Basheer attributed much of the shift in Gazan society’s attitude toward women to the rapid advances in technology. “Technology is absolutely a key factor in this change. In addition, some people have started to let go of the old mentality because they know, from experience, that it’s fruitless [to hang on to the old ways].”

The two young women will continue to visit children twice a week, to cheer them up and encourage them to stay safe at home.

Osama Fayyad, the coordinator of the initiative, told The Media Line that strict measures have been undertaken to ensure the safety of both the children and the female volunteers.

“All books and materials distributed to kids are disinfected before the distribution process. Storybooks received from kids who finished reading them are cleaned and sterilized as well. The whole team wears gloves and takes social distancing into consideration,” he said.

Feminist activists in the Strip, fearing an increase in domestic violence in families under lockdown, say learning self-defense has become indispensable.

In the southern Rafah Governorate, a family that shuttered its karate training center due to the pandemic has converted their home’s roof into a karate club. There the father, a certified karate master, personally supervises the progress of all his family members, especially the females, in an effort to make their time under lockdown enjoyable, empower and support his daughters, and spend some quality time together.

His oldest daughter, Hadeel Sheikheleid, a 21-year-old who has studied karate since she was very young, told The Media Line that learning a martial art wasn’t easy for a girl in a male-dominated society since it was for too long considered a purely male sport.

“I went through many difficult situations early on, but my father was always by my side. He never forced any of us [his daughters] to do anything. My two sisters and I are strong enough to face what’s left of society’s unfair judgment and oppression, because we know we have our father’s full support,” she said.

A slow though significant change in the Gazan mentality has been evident of late, encouraging more girls to explore new prospects and to dare to enter challenging fields.

Zaina Alagha, 14, is a zither player at the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music’s branch in Gaza City. She believes that “if given the opportunity, women can be creative winners who can positively influence their environment and overcome all social obstacles on the way.”

Zaina Alagha playing zither at her house in central Gaza City, April 19, 2020. (Courtesy)

Zaina’s mother said it all begins in the home. “If the family is open-minded and provides the girls the independence and freedom they need, there will be no problems at all,” she told The Media Line.

“Personally,” she continued, “I treat my son and daughter equally; they both study music, go to the equestrian club and practice full independence.”

Due to the national lockdown, Zaina takes her music classes online and continues to follow her dream of traveling the world and becoming a famous musician.

Zaina Alagha playing zither at her house in central Gaza City, April 19, 2020. (Courtesy)

Manal Awwad, the head of the Edward Said National Conservatory’s Gaza branch, told The Media Line that it is a remarkable achievement that almost 70% of the institute’s students are female. “We are very satisfied with that percentage, which reflects a kind of a positive change.”

However, Awwad said that such progress is required at all levels and not only in the artistic realm.

“We still face many challenges regarding women’s participation at the political level, for example. What is the concept of partnership here? Is it only to fill a limited quota? Or is it to fill positions based on efficiency and ability? What is our position at the decision-making level? … Asking these questions makes clear the gap that women still have to deal with all the time,” Awwad said.

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