Arts + Design

Gallery: Women in Gaza and their determined quest for higher education

Feb 28, 2017 / +

In this contested territory, women must endure a lengthy, frustrating process when they pursue a university education abroad. Here are four of their stories.

“For me, two basic human rights are the right to education and the freedom of movement,” says Kuwaiti-raised Palestinian photojournalist Laura Boushnak (TED Talk: For these women, reading is a daring act). “Now imagine being denied both.” That’s the situation faced by many living in Gaza, where university offerings are particularly limited. Taken in spring 2016, these photographs of women in Gaza Strip are the most recent installment in Boushnak’s “I Read, I Write” project, which focuses on Arab girls and women who are using education to advance their lives. The quest for higher education for Gaza women is thwarted by the blockades that Israel and Egypt have placed on its borders.

As a result, travel to schools outside the region requires an exit permit, for which would-be students often wait months, sometimes more than a year, only to get their applications rejected. And yet, despite the obstacles and setbacks, “the only thing I see in the Gaza stories is hope,” says Boushnak, a TED Global Fellow. “These are all outspoken women who refuse to take no for an answer, and they know the system needs to be changed.”

A crowded place to learn

Gaza is home to two million people, a number that is increasing rapidly. Schools run double shifts, and classes are large, with anywhere from 40 to 50 students in each. The UN, which runs many of the territory’s schools, predicts that an additional 440 schools are needed by 2020 to cope with the expected growth of the population. Even with the crowding, literacy rates are high in Gaza: 93 percent for women, 98 percent for men.

Room to breathe

Gaza is just 24.9 miles long and 6.2 miles wide, and the beach is a popular place for residents to go. It’s bounded by the Mediterranean Sea, Israel and Egypt. In 2005, Israel withdrew its troops and roughly 7,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. A year later, the militant Islamist group Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections. When Hamas took over in Gaza, Israel imposed a blockade on the territory, restricting the movement of goods and people, and Egypt blockaded the southern border.

Self-expression through music

At a studio in Gaza, Reem, 26, records a piece of music that she helped compose.A self-taught oud player, she is the only female member of her band. She was recently banned from performing in public by the Hamas government. “Gaza is a very conservative place, and the oud instrument is a masculine one,” she says. “That’s why it’s rare to find a woman playing the oud, as if it’s something bad. This made me ever more determined to learn it, and my mother was always supportive about my passion for music.” She would like to study music abroad, since there are no music schools in Gaza. “I applied once for a course abroad and got rejected. The organizers said since I wasn’t sure whether I could leave Gaza on time to make it for the course, they preferred to give my place to someone else.”

Grace under pressure

Reem sits in the dark and watches TV during one of the frequent power cuts that occur in Gaza (she has a small generator to power her TV). “We’re under lots of pressure on all fronts,” she says. “In addition to our restriction of movement, there is enormous social pressure on women. I only wear the hijab when I go outside because it’s expected of me to do so. When I get upset, I play music. Music is my life.”

The power of family

Asma, 21, joins her extended family of six sisters, five brothers and their kids for an outing at the beach. Her parents have been putting pressure on her to get married and stay in Gaza. She thinks she is too young to wed and wants to finish her studies first. She says, “When I told my dad I want to study abroad, his answer was, ‘When a man proposes to you, you can get married and travel with him.’”

Praying for escape

Asma pleads with God to make it easier for her to leave Gaza. After being accepted to study English literature at a university in the US, Asma has been trying for more than a year to go through one of its two official border crossings but is unable to get the necessary travel permits.

Staying positive

Asma and her friend Mohammed seek legal advice from a lawyer at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza after her latest travel permit was refused. As to how she deals with the stress and anxiety, she says, “I read, I listen to music, I spend time with friends. There are not many things to be done here in Gaza, but I try to turn all those troubles into a positive energy until things work out.” In October 2016, Asma managed to leave Gaza. She is now in the US, pursuing her studies.

Separate entertainment

Asma and her friend Abeer take selfies at a gender-separated concert in Gaza. Abeer is a journalist who works for the London Times and other publications. She has many followers on social media, where she freely voices her critical opinions about politics and women’s rights. “Gaza is a very conservative society, but because my profession requires lot of movement, I don’t have a problem going around on my own,” she says. That freedom is confined to the territory, however; to travel to another country, she faces the same restrictions as other residents. “I was 20 when the blockade started, and it’s been nine years now,” reflects Abeer. “And I’ve survived three wars in less than six years.”

Defying her culture

Abeer interviews Sami Abu Watfa of the Hamas-run Ministry of Culture in his office in Gaza. She was asking him about the opening of a five-day film festival, which was delayed for a couple of hours as policemen entered the hall to ensure the audience was gender segregated. “I’m 29 years old and still not married. By standards here, that’s late,” she says. “In my case, because I work and I’m financially independent, it’s hard for a man to get approval of his family to marry me. I’m seen as someone who can’t even make a cup of coffee. People say [about me], ‘She’s open-minded, not like our girls.’”

A global perspective

“I wish I could easily travel out of Gaza and be able to come back whenever I want to,” she says, voicing an opinion shared by other women her age. She was awarded the Reuters Academic Fellowship, which allows her to attend Oxford University in the UK for one year. She was forced to spend six weeks in Jordan waiting for a visa, but she was finally permitted to go to the UK in December.

A mother’s comfort

Sally, 18, waits with her mother at the Egyptian-controlled border at Rafah, hoping her name will be announced. She has been accepted to study medicine in Germany. Her visa to Germany was approved, but after her travel permit from Jordan was refused three times, her father managed to add her name to a list to travel through Rafah. On this day, she packed her belongings and went to the border to wait with her parents and siblings, unsure if she’d be able to cross. “The Rafah border opens usually for a few days a year. Many people flock there, desperate to leave,” she says. “I’ve read many stories shared by people on social media on how humiliating and difficult the whole crossing procedure is.”

Heartbreak — and then success

Sally reacts with disappointment after her name was not announced on the first list of travelers. “My parents want me to leave,” she says. “They say there is no future for me here in Gaza. But I might come back one day and work here as a surgeon to help people.” Later that day, her name was finally called and she was allowed to go to the Egyptian side of the border. The next morning she took a minivan to Cairo, and then flew to Germany, where she is learning German before beginning her medical studies.