By Kerriann Marden
Life in the Gaza Strip is hard and getting harder. A recent United Nations report predicts that conditions there will be “unliveable” by the year 2020, just five months away. In male-dominated Gaza, where no one has enough, females have even less: less freedom of movement, less economic opportunity, less political power, and less hope of having their voices heard.
But that’s where photography of and by women in Gaza can make a difference. Images captured by women photographers allow them to share their viewpoint, and allow us to see - with our own eyes - life as they experience it. In Gaza, women inhabit a space from which most of the world is restricted by religious or cultural prohibitions, geographic boundaries, language barriers, or gender norms. Photography offers women the opportunity to share their unique perspective and to open a window on the world they embody.
Female photographers are a rare breed in Gaza, where photography is generally a male profession. However, those who have dared to break the mould are truly note-worthy. Freelance photojournalist Samar Abu Elouf has been capturing haunting and compelling images of life in Gaza for almost a decade, including her 2016 series for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Portraits of Women of Gaza. Seeing it as her responsibility to document the truth through her camera lens, her work has been described as “part documentary, part politics.” Mariam Riad Abu Daqqa is a press photographer whose work eloquently expresses the precarious balance of her life in Gaza, between violent explosions on the one hand and tiny vegetable gardens on the other. Photojournalist Eman Mohammed explained in her TED Talk that she primarily photographed violence and its aftermath because this was the reality of her world. Although she lived and worked in Gaza, she has now relocated to the US, reducing the number of female Palestinian photojournalists actively working in the Gaza Strip today to two.
Laila Shawa, a Gaza-born artist currently living in the UK, uses her photographs of people and protest in Gaza as the foundation for powerful mixed-media artwork depicting the injustice and persecution that have become the political reality of her nation. During a self-imposed confinement in protest against violence in Gaza, local artist Nidaa Badwan produced a series of vibrant photographic self-portraits of her literal and metaphoric interior life, One Hundred Days of Solitude.
Women from outside of Gaza are also working to impart the experiences of those living within the territory. American photojournalist Heidi Levine documented Israel’s 2014 offensive facing not only the same dangers but also the same discrimination, as the women she photographed. She used her gender status to her advantage, gaining access to intimate situations that her male colleagues could not, and capturing the truth of the female experience in her photographs. Photographer Monique Jacques, an American based in Istanbul, draws upon the local tradition of storytelling to develop trusting relationships with her subjects in order to document the joys and victories of women’s lives in Gaza. The Jordanian-born, American- and British-educated East Jerusalem resident Tanya Habjouqa depicts the daily lives of women living in this impoverished, isolated territory in her unflinching photo series Women of Gaza.
Yet despite the vision and talent of these courageous women photographers, their voices remain stifled without an audience. Female photojournalists Enas Mraih and Laila Abu Odeh have been named in certain Palestinian blogs, but have left no discernible footprint beyond their nation, so their work is entirely lost to the outside world. And although there have been several photography exhibits focused on Gaza, these almost exclusively showcase the work of males. In order to share their unique perspective and to credit their brave work, greater effort must be made to disseminate the work of these female photographers, both within and beyond the closed borders of their nation. Exhibiting these women’s work enriches all of our understanding by, quite literally, completing the picture of life in Gaza.
Some important efforts are being made, including a series of workshops in Gaza “to encourage more women and girls to take up a lens and document their perspectives” currently under development by femLENS. These workshops are designed to be a form of empowerment, giving a voice to those who have been kept silent or for whom others have spoken. By putting the camera directly into the hands of women and girls in Gaza and letting their eyes direct the lens, their lives will stop being invisible, and they can regain some sense of control over their circumstances.