“When you’re a young girl in Gaza, your existence is defined by its boundaries — literal and metaphorical, defined by both regional and cultural politics”


 

Photojournalist Monique Jaques first traveled to Gaza to cover an eight day war between Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas. Driven to document the strength, creativity and vibrancy of Palestinian girls and young women she continued to return to the area over and over again. The result is a moving portrait of young women coming of age in an area defined by conflict. As Jaques explains, when you’re a young girl in Gaza, your existence is defined by its boundaries — literal and metaphorical, defined by both regional and cultural politics:

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Girls watch the sun set at the harbor in Gaza City. While living in Gaza is undeniably tough, being a woman there is harder.
“Gaza is a troubled land, and growing up there isn’t easy. It is a 45-square-mile district, isolated
by towering concrete blast walls, reams of barbed wire and foreign soldiers who patrol its perimeters. After years of blockades and travel restrictions, the territory is isolated and shut off from the rest of the world. At night the never-ending buzz of drones lull you into a light sleep under their watchful din. If you stand on the beach you can see lights coming from Israel — a land that you will never be able to touch.
Boundaries and surveillance define your existence. Families are tight and watchful. Many women say that in a place as small as Gaza it is impossible to be truly free. Everyone you know is monitoring you – your brothers, cousins and neighbours. Everyone’s eyes are a camera, recording and judging your actions, possibly reporting them to your family. Due to spacial constraints in the Strip, multiple generations end up living in one building creating a tight knit micro-society.
Add conservative Islam and bored family members looking to gossip to the mix and it creates tension and pressure for girls figuring out who they want to be. “I wish I could leave, even for one day, so I can go to a place where no one knows me,” whispered Doaa Abu Abdo, a 27-year-old production assistant as we drove north on one of my many trips to the area, the wind ruffling her hair peaking out of her headscarf in the back seat of a friends car. Many women have dreams they cannot achieve. Hadeel Fawzy Abushar, 25, is a singer who performs in concerts promoting peace. Her dream is to sing in Ramallah, a city in the West Bank. Sabah Abu Ghanem, 14, and her sister wake up early to surf the waves on the Gaza beach before attending school. The sisters place first in many competitions inside the strip, but have never left Gaza to compete. In order to leave and enter another country you must be searched, inspected by an airport-style scanner and most of all lucky, as exit permits and visas to neighboring countries are hard to come by. Despite its hardships, Gaza has one of the finest school systems in the Middle East, with nearly universal literacy. Many young women attend one of the several universities, eventually graduating to become writers, engineers and doctors yet still unable to fulfill their dreams of traveling. Many dream of leaving the strip to explore the world and find themselves on their own, though they also speak of returning to Gaza. “It’s my home,” they say. “I love Gaza.”
Text by Monique Jaques
For many Gazans the sea is the only place they can be without being reminded of their isolation. Female Surfer, Sabah Abu Ghanem ,14 and her sister surf early in the morning outside of Gaza city. The sisters place first in many competitions inside the strip, but have never left the Gaza Strip to compete.

 

You speak about similarities as something key. What were some of the similarities that you discovered during this project? 

 

Much of this project focuses on the parallel threads between girls growing up. Undeniably, Gaza is a very difficult place but the girls and women who live there have hopes and dreams similar to girls around the world. They want to have fun with their friends, find love and happiness and experience joy. They have secrets and hopes just like you and I had. I believe showing these similarities are crucial in showing the lives women lead in areas of conflict. So often what we see coming out of Gaza is only images of conflict, and through this work I hope to show that there is more to this place.
The girls and women are aware of their own limitations, yet their dreams remain strong. What are the strongest driving factors behind their motivation to attend school and stay positive? 
In a place like Gaza it’s so important to hold on to dreams in order to keep going. There is a very high rate of mental illness as well as suicide as teens and adults often give up hope. The people of Gaza have an incredibly strong spirit- they are committed and determined to make their worlds better so they study and strive for better positions and jobs. I believe it’s the same human drive we all have to better ourselves and our situations but in Gaza it’s harder to achieve so they work harder. It is incredibly inspiring to see.
Giving a voice to women around the world could be one of the most important tools we have today. How did the girls feel about this project knowing their stories would be told in other parts of the world? What sort of feedback did you get from them? 
I wouldn’t say that this work is giving the girls voices as they already have their own, but a large part of the book is a text section organized in a diary format where girls tell their stories in their own words. Because this isn’t my story I wanted to give my subjects a place where they can communicate their own thoughts and ideas about coming of age. The girls were excited to be a part of this project as they have never been told that their opinions are important and that their thoughts about growing up are interesting to readers.

Monique’s work was kindly suggested by Daniella Zalcman, photojournalist and founder of WomenPhotograph

Gaza Girls has been published as a photobook by Photoevidence. The book is available on Monique’s website: www.moniquejaques.com/book/

Website: www.moniquejaques.com

Instagram: @moniquejaques

Twitter: @moniquejaques #GazaGirlsBook

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