A recent ruling by Gaza’s Sharia Supreme Judicial Council declared that unmarried woman would require the permission of a male guardian to travel. The announcement sparked uproar in the twenty–five-mile-long strip, where around two million Palestinians live under a 14-year economic blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt.
Many people in Gaza used social to express their anger and frustration, while numerous humanitarian organisations added their voices to condemn the move. The court eventually backed down last week. But only just. In an amendment, a male guardian can still restrict a woman’s ability to travel, but only if he can prove to a judge that she is at risk of “grave harm.”
“People are going to Mars and the Moon, and we are still debating whether women should be able to move freely or not,” says Najla, a humanitarian worker in the Gaza strip.
“It [was] a violation of the basic laws in Palestine,” says Hala Nabhan a lawyer working for the Gaza based Women’s Affairs Centre (WAC), an organisation that provides free legal advice to women in the region. “Article 12 states that any individual has the freedom to move between countries and the freedom to choose where they live. This decision also violates international laws.”
The amendment to the ruling is a somewhat positive step and a testament to the strength of feeling in Gaza. But it still begs the question: Why did the court make the decision in the first place?
Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem are due to go the polls for the first time in 15 years this summer, with legislative elections being held in May and a Presidential ballot in July.
Since 2006, the Gaza strip has been ruled by Hamas, a fundamentalist, Sunni Islamic party. Some commentators have suggested that the regressive court decision was intended to shore up conservative support for the party ahead of these crucial elections.
Alternatively, says Amal Syam, the Director of the Women’s Affairs Centre, the court’s initial decision could have been a deliberate setup so that Hamas would appear more modern and liberal by publicly reversing it. “It could be because they want to try and put-up obstacles before the elections,” Syam tells VICE World News. “Or maybe they want to put this on the table and then cancel it to show people ‘we are listening.’”
Whatever the reasoning, the idea that fundamental women’s rights could be up for grabs at all is deeply concerning for many, especially given the difficulties already faced by large swathes of the population.
Over half of the people in Gaza live in poverty, its economy strangled by a blockade that severely restricts imports and exports. The blockade, imposed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas won the last election in Gaza in 2006, is considered illegal under international law. Since its war with Israel in the summer of 2014 – which claimed the lives of over 2,000 Palestinians – the strip has also been subjected to periodic air and artillery strikes by the Israeli military.
These issues have been compounded by the impact of COVID–19, which has strained Gaza’s already precarious health system and further damaged the economy. Over 53,000 cases have been reported in Gaza, with over 500 deaths. Israel, which is leading the world with a vaccination program that has inoculated over half its population, only allowed the first shipment of 2,000 doses of vaccine, sent by the Palestinian West Bank, to enter Gaza on Wednesday the 17th of February.
On top of all this, Najla says, women are battling an “increase in gender-based violence,” making it hard for women to organise around the issues that matter to them. “Even for those who have – if I can call it – the luxury to do something,” she adds, “like being active in certain initiatives or taking leadership in their community or in politics, there are still a lot of blockages.”
Mona al-Shawa is the head of the Women’s Rights Unit at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) based in Gaza city. “The rate of poverty is very high in Gaza,” she tells VICE World News, “and the ones who are affected most of all are women.
“We hope that this new election, and the new life of democracy in Palestine, will give us change, will give us the chance to change the situation, and to end the isolation of Gaza.”
Shawa is hoping that the upcoming elections will increase the representation of Gaza’s women in politics. “We hope to have a new Palestinian legislative council,” she says, “and to see women participating in the election and participating in the council, so we can have good and better conditions in the law for women.”
She continues: “We are asking to have also family protection laws from violence. The people here need to see change.”
Not everyone is optimistic. One woman, a mother living in the town of Rafah who did not wish to be named, told VICE World News that “nothing will change.”
“I don’t believe that Hamas will lose their power,” she said. “Even if they did, what is the alternative? No party is really going to be able to end the siege of Gaza. That’s what the main problem we face is.”
Ineffectiveness is a common accusation levelled at the two most powerful parties in Palestinian politics. Neither Fatah, which has partial control of the Occupied West Bank, or Hamas have been able to reach any kind of deal with Israel that might end the occupation of the West Bank, or the siege of the Gaza strip.
Still, it looks unlikely that the hegemony of these two factions will be challenged come the summer.
Yet whatever the outcome of elections, and however bleak the future may look to embattled Gazans, the show of public unity sparked by February’s court ruling could be reason for hope. “The advocacy campaign, the joint effort of Gaza’s civil society, especially of human rights organisations and woman’s organisations, worked hard to stop this and succeeded,” said Shawa.
“All the time, we will raise our voices.”