Of the Women, By the Women, For the Women

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February 7, 2013 13:24

“No Moign, everything we are going to do today will be done by me,” Menna insisted in a loud but polite tone. “You have to understand that it’s International Women’s Day so I will do everything myself today and you’ll only be a silent observer. It’s my turn to tell the story and you’ll patiently be my audience. You see any problem with it?”

Menna Hassan is a 23-year old teacher who lives in Gaza with her family. She has a B.A. degree in English language. The Gazan became a school teacher two years ago after being offered a position by the UN aid agency UNRWA. Today is her day and she is brimming with confidence. “Having a day reserved for women does not mean that we do something special on this day and it’s highlighted. For me it’s a day to remind everyone all over the world that women work 365 days a year and do as much important work as men,” she said in an assertive tone. And she was proving a valid point. The fair sex works hard day and night but gets recognition only one day a year!

UNRWA SCHOOL – GAZA – 0900 local time

This is the place where I come every day to work. This is the place that is most important to me after my home. It has always been my dream to be a decent human being, and a responsible woman who is useful to her family and the society. When I completed my formal education, I looked around to see how my ambitions can be fulfilled and my aspirations of being a useful member of the society be realized.

Once I was out on the street early in the morning to buy breakfast for my family. There I saw kids as young as three year old walking to the school with a dazzling smile on their face and their uniforms shining brightly in the morning sun. It took me no time to recognize that I belong to a place where kids are given the most precious gift in their life – education. It is such a present that can change their life forever. I decided to train as a teacher and become the guardian of our children’s future.

gaza school classroom

View of a classroom of Al-Ahleya Primary School Gaza run by IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation Turkey. Most of the schools in Gaza are administered by UNRWA (United Nations Relief & Works Agency for Palestinian refugees) and other governmental and non-governmental organizations that provide education to thousands of children. The bulk of the school workforce is comprised of female teachers and assistants. Many schools are exclusively administered by female principals and headmistresses. Photo - IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation/TURKEY

Two years ago I joined a school and my dream of becoming a teacher finally came true. I was really over the moon to be among kids and teach them the very basics of language, daily life, etiquette and manners and engage with them in activities that made them feel very happy. It is a very hard job for the teachers to help their students forget the pains and sorrows of daily life but we do our best. We make them feel as if they’re entering a different world. A world where imagination is more powerful than perception and reality!

gaza nursery children

View of a pre-school classroom run by ANERA, a US non-governmental organization working in the occupied territories since 1968. Teachers, often under-resourced, come up with brilliant ideas to recycle refuse and use them in the classrooms to educate children. Israel’s crippling blockade of Gaza means no books, toys, classroom aids or even meals can be provided to school going children. In my opinion, Palestinian teachers are one of the most resourceful teachers in the world as they do their best to come up with solutions and carry on teaching. Photo - ANERAorg

One thing that annoys us women in Gaza and badly affects our lives is the constant interference of politics. It is often men that create political problems, often rising when their egos clash, but we, women, have to bear the brunt of it. Teachers make sure that school is a place free of politics and all the evils attached to it. For us, every kid is valuable and stands same before us.

gaza students no politics

Palestinian students carrying poster that says ‘No to Haniyeh (Hamas leader), No to Abbas (Fatah chairman and Palestinian Authority president), Schools are our foundations’. Teachers and students often complain that political infighting and differences have severely hampered the work of women in almost every walk of the life especially education.

GAZA MARKET – GROCERY SHOPPING – 1200

After the school I head to the market from where I buy groceries. It is completely packed at midday and people from all over the Gaza Strip come here to sell their stuff. Buyers and sellers of all ages can be seen busy haggling and making deals. One thing that you’ll also see here is the heavy presence of women not only as buyers but also as sellers of goods. They all work really hard and are proud of what they can do to help their family.

“We are suffering very badly from the siege there is no doubt about it. But our spirits are not dampened. We share our responsibilities in the household. Our men have lost their jobs due to siege so we try to help them as much as we can. And it goes well appreciated,” said a woman in her thirties selling home made cakes. She has got a bachelors degree but jobs are scarce in Gaza due to occupation. While speaking to her I felt really lucky to have a job as a teacher and do what I was trained to do. I really hope things change for her too…

gaza working women

An elderly Palestinian woman selling vegetables in the Gaza market. Years of occupation and absence of a welfare system means every individual has to work in order to survive. Thousands of Palestinian men are languishing in Israeli prisons for decades and their seems no end to their agony. As a result, their womenfolk earn the bread as well as bring up kids. Photo - GazaGirl

NORTHERN GAZA – FRIEND’S HOUSE – 1300

Now I’m heading to my friend’s house in northern Gaza. I’m going to make a strawberry cake and for that I need to get the best strawberries in Gaza and her farm produces the best ones. Like many other women in Gaza, she also studies and helps her mom pick and pack the strawberries. She also transports them to the market at any given time of the day.

Despite all the hardships, Gaza is a secure place for women to live. We do face external threats like an Israeli air attack can be expected any time but on the streets women are safe. Unlike other places in the Middle East, we can drive a car, go out with our friends for shopping etc. No need to have the baggage with us… by which I mean there is no need to have a male relative alongside.

gaza women growers

Restrained incomes and a complete Israeli blockade on imports mean people have to make use of whatever land available to them. Many families grow fruits and vegetables in their lawns and backyards and sell it in the market. This family grows peas and other vegetables to make a living. Photo - Grassroots International

After having a cup of tea with my friend and her mother, she offers me a lift back to town in her van which I accept gladly. I help her load the produce and then we head to the city center. “We spend almost US$500 a year to irrigate this stretch of land. We buy seeds, fertilizer, and buy fuel for the van. Also, we sometimes have to hire a tractor as well. So this red ripe strawberry that you’re munching gets all the taste from our hard work,” my friend says with a big grin on her face. Hard work has made her more humble and this strawberry taste good. Bless you both!

GAZA CITY – HOME – 1400

Soon we’re in the town center. I say goodbye to her and head to my home. As expected, my family is waiting for me to have lunch together. “Your favorite beefsteak with roast potatoes is ready my heartbeat of Gaza,” yells my mom with a big grin. Blushing, I quickly wash my hands and grab a plate. While having my lunch, I tell them about what I’ve done so far and what I’ll be doing later on. “Don’t forget to take the cake for your friend. Her craving is getting out of control. She will kick you out from her office if you turn up empty handed,” my mom joked while I laughed loudly. “I’ve got the best strawberries in whole Gaza for her,” I exclaimed while raising my eyebrows sarcastically.

GAZA CITY – HOSPITAL – 1600

On the way to my friend’s workplace, I see the streets bustling with activity. It seems all Gazan women are out on the streets and having a good time. Some are shopping while others are just having a stroll. Some are heading down to the beach while others seem lazing in the sunshine. Everyone, it seems is making sure they celebrate the day in their own way…

gaza female artists painters

Some artists were out on the streets making paintings on the walls. This one was drawn near Gaza’s main Al-Shifa Hospital by students from Al-Aqsa University. This painting is about the liberation of women from the clutches of Zionist occupation and their empowerment in the Palestinian society. Interestingly, all the artists in the street were women. Photo - palestinalibre.org

Luckily, my friend is on duty and is about to finish her hourly round. Finally she arrives with a big smile on her face after a few minutes of waiting. “The whole hospital smells of the gift you’ve got for me,” she shouted while squeezing me in her arms. I failed to hide the smell of the delicious big cake from her. There was no way I could hide my excitement as I was meeting her after a long time.

“Well, I’m here to see my compatriot women serving the society in particular and humanity in general. And this is all part of the International Women’s Day that I’m celebrating,” I said to which she replied with a giggle: “You brought this cake so now I’m making you in charge of this place.” All the women in the room were grinning.

“Whom would you like to see? We’ve got female doctors, surgeons, dentists, psychiatrists, nurses, cleaners and physiotherapists as well. You can’t believe the revolution going on here!” my friend exclaimed with a big smile on her face. “This place can make you sad but will also make you proud of us women.”

gaza lady doctor

A nurse operating an incubator in Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, a Christian administered institution. Hospitals suffer badly from intermittent power cuts and staff struggles to make sure valuable human lives are saved by taking critical decisions. Women work alongside men in Gazan hospitals and undergo extreme stress. Photo - John Plocher

I spoke to a few doctors and nurses and asked them what is the toughest part of their job. “Seeing a woman’s husband or children die in front of their eyes is the most unbearable that can happen. We feel like we’re torn apart. It is impossible to imagine how we’ll feel if (God forbid) we’ll lose our children,” said a young graduate who is training to become a lady doctor. Seniors around her nodded in affirmation. I spent more than an hour with my friend and her staff and thanked them for their time and cooperation. I felt very proud of every individual present there.

gaza female physiotherapists

Female physiotherapist working in a Gaza hospital. Many women prefer getting treated by a female physiotherapist as they feel more comfortable and looked after. Photo - julioetchart

GAZA BEACH – SUNSET – 1830

While I was having a chat with my neighbor about the activities of the Code Pink Women and the significance of the International Women’s Day in Gaza, I received a phone call from my mother and sister who wanted me to come to the beach for a stroll. “We’ve got some refreshments for you if you fancy coming here,” they offered knowing I can never decline as I always liked having snacks on the seafront.

gaza women beach

Silhouettes of women sat gazing the evening sky in Gaza.

After playing around with kids and buying them some sweets, my mother sat next to me and my sisters looking at the horizon. Then she turned towards us and said: “I know it is hard to be a woman in any part of the world but without us there will be no society. We are the greatest part of it.”

“Pain is no stranger to us women,” she continued philosophically. “It only makes us strong. It makes us victors. It makes us do the things we do in best possible way. We take pain in our roles as mothers, sisters, daughters and wives and give it back with love, affection, respect and comfort.” The stars in the sky started to glitter and I could see a reflection of us in them.

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