Zainab Al Ghonaimy used to love the calming effect of nighttime. But she does not long for the night anymore. After spending 11 nights of devastating war and bombardment by Israeli forces and surviving, Zainab feels “the sun still hasn’t woken up” and that the “heavy night is never ending”. Despite advice and efforts to move her, Zainab has remained in her home in Gaza City, which has faced incessant bombing since October 7.
A feminist human rights defender and the director of the Centre for Legal Counselling and Protection for Women, Zainab runs a shelter home for abused and abandoned women. At 71, she still walks and takes care of the shelter’s day-to-day business. But she can’t run from guns, much less with a backpack.
Even if she manages to escape the guns and debris, she would not be able to squat in crowded school bathrooms where the displaced are taking shelter. It is more dignified to die at home, she feels. All around her, people are dying. Someone went to the bakery to buy bread for their child and died as the forces bombed the bakery. A family died—mother and children—because they stayed back in the house while the man went out to get bread. The entire family was wiped out after the forces bombed residential buildings.
The shelter she co-founded is nevertheless still standing and full of occupants. But these women are not “abandoned”, they are alone by choice. They choose to live with other women and become a part of that network of support. They don’t know how long this shelter will remain. Or, Zainab’s house.
Across Gaza City, several such spaces cramped with women and children have sprung up. If the women are upper middle class, they manage to collectively rent a room. If they aren’t, they squat in hospitals and schools, waiting to get bombarded.
On October 17, the news of the bombing of al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza took over the media with reports of nearly a thousand killed. The hospital was run by the Christian Anglican Commune. The majority of those killed in the bombing were people displaced from their homes in the last 10 days of air raids.
War is always hard on women. While men fight on the frontline and die in wars, women are left behind to survive in a broken society. But in these regions, wars set women behind in every way, says Farah Barqawi, activist and poet. “Healthcare services are affected, childcare and birthing facilities disrupted, menstrual and reproductive health and sexual safety suffer,” she adds.
Away from her mother in Brooklyn, NYC, New York, where she is pursuing her MFA in creative and fiction writing, Farah is writing about her mother, about borders, and life in Gaza. “It’s very overwhelming moment for me. I don’t know if I will ever get to see her alive again,” she states.
Many of Farah’s friends are also stuck in Gaza currently and she has no way of finding out if they will remain safe. Two years ago, in the May war on Gaza, Farah lost her cousin, her husband and their two kids. Her only surviving son is now 12, and in Gaza. “Women of Gaza are losing their future— they are losing universities, medical centres, daycare centres, birthing centres, anything that supported women and children before the war. Facilities that encouraged women to work, produce, and get treated are now being demolished. Every measure of development we have achieved in Gaza in terms of infrastructure and civil liberties is being systematically erased,” she states. The al-Ahli Arab Hospital that was bombed is said to have had some of the best birthing services in Gaza. Many of Farah’s cousins were born there. “Now it’s gone.”
Wafa Abu Hasheish, a mother and a healthcare provider, got stuck in Gaza when the violence began and later chose to stay back to work for the victims of war. Currently working with the Palestinian Family Planning and Protection Association (PFPPA), Wafa says that healthcare services have been badly hit.
“I have dealt with two suspected cases of miscarriages already. In one case, a woman in my vicinity was eight months pregnant and suffering from severe labour pain. It was only because they came to me, a healthcare worker, in time that they could be referred to a medical emergency centre,” she said in a statement. Jerusalem-based PFPPA’s executive director and human rights activist Ammal Awadallah confirms that “women and children in the hundreds of thousands are now lacking shelter, food, water and are living in constant fear of their lives”.
Tens of thousands of women are pregnant in the Gaza Strip and it has been estimated that there are over 5,000 who are expected to give birth in a month, Ammal states. “Only 10 days ago, pregnancy was for so many expecting mothers a milestone that they were excited about and looking forward to. Now, with such limited resources and supplies and difficulties in movement, they live in fear of both their own well-being as well as that of the newborn that they are to deliver soon,” she states.
Hwaida, another Gaza-based women’s rights activist, who was recently evacuated to southern Gaza, is currently taking care of over 350 elderly people who have been displaced because of the war. “Where will these people go? They could not bring any belongings, many of them are just scarred and can’t stop crying,” she states. At night, they can hear the sounds of bombing and wake up screaming.
In Brooklyn, Palestinian human rights activist and musician Huda Asfdour is furious. “What is happening is nothing short of genocide. We are truly watching another holocaust. And the world still hasn’t learned,” she states. As an artist and human rights advocate, Huda has devoted her life to spread awareness and information about Palestinian history, art, identity and the resistance movement. “We are not the “human animals” that the occupation government or even the Western media wants the world to believe. We are beautiful people, artists, thinkers, musicians, scientists, and writers. The world needs to realise that we are a human asset,” she states.
Huda, who has family and friends stuck in Gaza, states that the cyclical violence has led to generational trauma among Palestinians, especially women, who internalise trauma and pain in patriarchal societies through the memories of their mothers. Coming from a strong line of vocal feminists and artists, Huda feels it’s a miracle that Palestinians can still function. “I don’t know how a human heart can hold this much sorrow and pain,” she states.
For many like Rifat Kassis, a Christian Palestinian living in the West Bank city of Beit Sahour, the war has been a wake-up call. “We have come out of our slumber. We do not anymore believe in the international community and the promises made by the UN or other nations,” he states. While the war has brought out the real endgame of the Israeli expansionist plan, Palestinians claim that their movement against Israeli occupation has been going on for over 75 years.
Media narratives painting Palestinians as “bloodthirsty, Muslim warmongers” is an inaccurate and deeply colonial and Islamophobic representation of Palestinian society and resistance movement. Palestinian society prides itself in its pluralism, with its sizeable population of Christians like Kassis who consider themselves Palestinian first and Christian later. “The Western media, however, wants you to believe that all of us may not be terrorists, but we all are definitely anti-semitic,” Kassis laughs. He points out that before 1948, Jewish people were also part of the Palestinian society.
Farah Barqawi agrees that Palestinian society is built on pluralism and tolerance and the long movement for Palestinian sovereignty and freedom has been largely non-violent. She, nevertheless, remains unsure about the future. “All the civil society and human rights-based work that was being done has come to a stop because half of the people engaged in these works have been killed or displaced,” Farah states.
Her friend and activist in arms, Huda finds refuge in dreaming about a world with no borders. A new reality for humans based on mutual care and respect without the need for revenge.
In her music, she has tried to achieve this integration of cultures, heritages and collective pain of people across the world. And today, like many Palestinians, the artist has found in art and social media, a tool to communicate her beliefs. “Palestinians do not get air time. So we have to make our own forums to disseminate information about our identity, our history, our culture, our people. That is perhaps our last resort,” she states. That maybe, just maybe, if people knew what was really happening, they would demand that this madness be stopped. That if the international community saw how long Palestinian women had to queue up to use water in displacement camps or how pregnant women were having to drink unsanitary toilet water to survive after Israel cut off Gaza’s water and electric supply, that it would ensure that aid reaches the destroyed cities of Gaza and its people and women and children are rescued and rehabilitated.
But would they? The question hangs heavy on the heads of women like Zainab, Farah, Huda, Ammal, Wafa and countless others in Gaza who no longer feel that there is anywhere else left to go or anyone else left to turn to for help. As of now, the women of Gaza are on their own.
(This appeared in the print as 'The Women Of Gaza')