Without Water And Privacy, Women Of Gaza Are Holding On – But For How Long?

What is happening in Gaza now is a backward step in every way for the feminist movement, says Farah Barqawi, a Palestinian feminist, performer and poet, pursuing an MFA degree in non-fiction creative writing in Brooklyn

Artwork titled ‘Martyr no 18280 from Bureji camp, Gaza’ by Palestinian artist Abed Abdi.

I was a teenager when I was in Gaza 20 years ago. I remember, one day I was having a heavy period day. I was at a bus stand at the Rafah crossing, which had white plastic seats. I overflowed and stained the seat. An older woman called out to me and pointed the blood out. I am a feminist and raised well by my feminist mother. I was even wearing a pad and had taken all precautions. And yet, I remember how stigmatising that moment was for me. 

Today, sitting in Brooklyn, United States, watching my city get reduced to rubble, I keep thinking about that day at the bus stop and I wonder what the menstruating women must be going through at the moment in Gaza, which has been under Israeli siege for nearly three months. I can feel the shame and humiliation they must be feeling. Many of these young girls and women just carried a backpack when they left. What could they even carry in that backpack? It’s not surprising to hear that in Gaza, the demand for pills to block menstruation and contraception has gone up since this invasion. Women do not want to menstruate as there is no water. 

I am Farah Barqawi. I am currently finishing an MFA degree in non-fiction creative writing, and I am a poet. I am writing about Gaza, the border, my mother and the ULFA. It’s all really overwhelming because my 70-year-old mother, Zainab al Ghonaimy, is now in Gaza City. A feminist organiser and human rights defender herself, she has been there since the start, surviving Israeli artillery, bombs and white phosphorous. She co-founded a shelter for women survivors of domestic violence and abuse. Despite the immense bombings and fighting, the shelter is still up and running and is currently hosting refugees, women and children. My mother had initially remained in her apartment in Gaza City. Amid all the conflict, she has to survive herself and also manage the shelter. I don’t know when or if I will be able to see her again.

One Day at a Time Farah Barqawi

In these parts, war impacts women in many layers. Of course, we are losing large numbers of men, youth, boys and elderly men, and that is devastating. But in such wars, women who survive are set back decades in their lives. Women have to become the primary breadwinners for their kids and lifelong caretakers of their injured male families. You must also remember that despite the immense autonomy of Palestinian women, ours is a somewhat conservative society and most women are not comfortable with changing, bathing or even peeing in public spaces.

Now think of all the thousands of women displaced by this war and currently sheltering in cramped flats or rooms they are sharing with other refugees, both men and women. And these are still middle or upper-middle-class women. The poor are living in plastic tents or makeshift shacks. There is no water, which is essential for maintaining sexual hygiene. Cramped in such spaces or left orphaned or displaced due to bombings, many young women are at risk of sexual abuse as well. There are so many pregnant women and so few emergency services still surviving. 

Deliberate or not, the Israeli occupation army has been targeting hospitals. The Al Ahli Arab Hospital, which had the best maternity and childbirth facilities in Gaza, was one of the first to be bombed. Many of my cousins had been born there. So many pregnant women have been having painful miscarriages in Gaza due to the lack of birthing facilities and medicines.

Some of my schoolmates who have been displaced from Gaza’s Al-Remal area and are young or middle-aged mothers with three-four kids each tell me that their homes have completely been demolished. They say that the situation in the makeshift shelters and camps of the displaced is horrific. They are lining up for water and bathroom use and since there is no drinking water, many are being humiliated and treated like animals and made to drink undrinkable water from the bathroom. 

This is why my mother, who is 70, and lives alone in Gaza City, refused to leave her home. She said that she is old and her knees are bad and she would rather die at home than live a life of humiliation as a displaced squatter, forever on the run. I worry about her. Everyone tells me to take my mother out of Gaza. But she is strong and her strength gives me strength. 

My mom’s organisation represents and defends women who are getting divorced, getting deprived of inheritance, fighting custody battles. On regular days, she has a team of female lawyers working with her. All her life, she worked hard to create humane spaces for women to interact with each other and their children, especially divorced women fighting custody battles.

All this work has now been suspended. The shelter is still running but as a bomb shelter. We don’t know when it might get bombed. 

I myself took a trainer course at CEDAW, a UN initiative to end discrimination against women, under which, women’s rights organisations meet in March of every year and talk about protecting women. But what is the point now? Who will I train? Even basic gender and gender rights agreements that are the bare minimum have been flouted in Gaza.

All of these services that Gaza has been developing over the years, such as healthcare, women’s emancipation, education and raising awareness about rights, changing men and women —all the generations who got changed or were working on it — half of them have died or got displaced. Who will think about rights now? About feminism? It’s a backward step in every way for the feminist movement. And yet women—feminists—around the world are still deciding which side to stand with. What is happening in Gaza is collective punishment and women have become the ones to bear it.

As I write this, my mom and her family are in Gaza, two of my aunts, all of my cousins, male and female, from my mother’s side are all in Gaza, except for a couple of us who are abroad. We don’t know what will happen to them, but so far, I have been spared the tragedy of losing a loved one this time. But two years ago, in the May war on Gaza, I lost my cousin and her husband and two kids. Her only surviving son is now 12 years old. 

I keep thinking about what that 12-year-old child must be going through today. What images are running through his head? He survived once. He survived under rubble like these people are surviving now in Gaza. The strong women of Gaza are holding on, fighting on. But, for how long? Will I ever see my mother again? For now, I have no answers.


(As told to Rakhi Bose)

(This appeared in the print as 'Women Of Gaza Are Holding On But For How Long?')