By Sigrid von Wendel
Women living in Palestine can encounter a range of oppressions. On the one hand, there is the force of Israel, backed by Western powers, which has occupied Palestinian land for generations; and on the other, conservative elements of Palestinian society and religious organizations that sometimes advocate limitations on women’s rights. In the words of gender and human rights advocate Suheir Azzouni: “Palestinian women currently face two major types of obstacles to their rights: those arising from within their own culture and society, and those imposed as the result of occupation, war, and civil unrest.” The duality is put more bluntly by female Palestinian rapper Abeer Al Zinati: “Men from the west, get the fuck out of our lands; men from the east, get the fuck out of our minds!”
In the Gaza Strip, women are confronted with heightened versions of both power structures. Israel claims that it pulled out of Gaza in 2005, but the situation on the ground suggests otherwise: ongoing sanctions, blockades, limits on freedom of movement, and violence and destruction leveled against civilians make clear that occupation is still a daily reality. Israel maintains a near-stranglehold on Gaza’s resources–including food, water, fuel, and electricity–and sanctions are routine. In 2011, 60 percent of Gazan households were either food insecure or vulnerable to food insecurity, and that percentage that has likely increased as a result of ongoing hostilities. Israel also controls Gaza’s border crossings, airspace, and territorial waters, making movement in and out of Gaza extremely difficult, if not impossible. Citizens who venture further than three nautical miles from the shore or enter Israeli-designated “no go” zones within Gaza risk being arrested or shot by Israeli security forces. In addition, Gaza’s population is growing and its economy is stagnating. Absent considerable expansion of access to basic necessities, jobs, social services, education, and healthcare, the United Nation predicts that Gaza’s humanitarian crisis will worsen significantly in years to come.
For some women, the challenges of living in occupation are compounded by their own government’s domestic policies, which restrict their access to employment and parts of society. Most of Gaza’s gender-restrictive policies are designed, implemented, and enforced by the Islamic Resistance Movement—more commonly known as Hamas—which was democratically elected to power in 2006. I will discuss Hamas’ treatment of women throughout the paper, but first it is important to acknowledge that the roots of women’s oppression in Gaza go deeper than any one organization or ideology. An opinion poll conducted in 1992—more than ten years before Hamas’ electoral victory—found that 67 percent of Gazan men believed the proper role of a married woman was to “stay home and care for children.” Many women also choose to fulfill “traditional” gender roles in the household of their own volition. Lastly, it is important to acknowledge that systems of oppression can be imported and crafted from outside sources and pressures.
In this paper, I will investigate how Gazan women engage with the dual forces of occupation and patriarchy, specifically focusing on women’s agency within Hamas and Palestinian society more broadly. I will approach this topic from multiple angles, examining academic texts and ethnographies, in addition to film, music, and visual art. In addition, I will challenge the Western and Israeli tendency to group all Islamist and Islamic organizations into a unified, monolithic threat – ignoring evidence of wildly divergent ideologies, goals, and tactics. Hamas is often treated as a static organization premised on a fixed and unchanging belief system. In reality, however, the organization is flexible and at times rife with contradictions, especially when it comes to the treatment of women. The Western/Israeli view of Hamas is skewed by pervasive assumptions of superiority and deficient cultural understanding. In “Feminism versus Multiculturalism,” Professor Leti Volpp, echoing the positions of Edward Said, describes these problems:
The tension believed to exist between feminism and multiculturalism, or universalism and cultural relativism, not only relies upon the assumption that minority cultures are more sexist, but also assumes that those cultures are frozen and static entities…Non-western people are assumed to be governed by cultural dictates, whereas the capacity to reason is thought to characterize the West.
As an extension of this belief system, the Western/Israeli perspective often paints women in conflict zones as victims. This phenomena is aptly described by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak as the white man’s misguided sense of obligation to “sav[e] brown women from brown men.” In this paper, I aim to avoid that discourse, and instead examine Hamas, and the women interacting with it, as multifaceted and dynamic.
An Introduction to Hamas
Hamas was born in violent opposition to the state of Israel, as a rival to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Its formation came at the advent of the first intifada (uprising) in 1987 and the group’s influence grew throughout the 1990s. After the Madrid Peace Conference and Oslo Peace Accords failed to provide a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, many Palestinians withdrew support of the PLO, perceiving it as ineffective and corrupt. The territorial dispute was no closer to being fixed, and much of the foreign aid that accompanied the peace process was pocketed by crooked politicians. Hamas seized the opportunity, successfully offering itself as an alternative to the PLO by issuing an empowered call to arms while at the same time providing much-needed social services to impoverished Palestinians, especially in Gaza. Faith that peace could be brokered through diplomatic channels dwindled, and Hamas rode this wave of disillusionment into power. In their charter, Hamas stakes out a clear position: “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad [holy war]. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.”
In the 2006 Palestinian Authority elections, Hamas enjoyed overwhelming electoral success. Fatah, the leading secular Palestinian political party and majority party of the PLO, ousted Hamas officials-elect from the West Bank, but eventually conceded control of Gaza. Despite Hamas’ democratic election to power, the United States, the European Union, Egypt, and several other countries continue to classify Hamas as a terrorist organization. As such, Hamas is often grouped, in the Western and Israeli imagination, with other militant Islamic organizations, including al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and, most recently, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). In September 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu described these four organizations as “branches of the same poison tree.”
Though each group has carried out attacks targeting civilians, Netanyahu dangerously glosses over radical differences between the organizations. Extremist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda denounce democracy and advocate practices such as child marriage, violence against women, banning of girls’ education, and the annihilation of Jews and other non-Muslim peoples. Hamas, by contrast, openly endorses democracy and entertains conciliatory visions of the future. Khaled Mashal, Hamas’s leader since 2004, has stated that he sees the Palestinian struggle not as a religious war between Muslims and Jews, but as an emancipatory effort on the part of an occupied people. In 2009, Mashal argued that coexistence is still possible, citing a long history of Jews, Muslims, and Christians peacefully living side by side. Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, is of a similar outlook: when asked about Hamas’ view towards the Jewish people, he responded, “Our conflict is not with the Jews, our problem is with the occupation [of Palestine].” In part because of these conciliatory views, Hamas has been condemned by ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other extremist organizations and individuals. In 2014, ISIS combatants burned the Palestinian flag as a symbol of rejecting Hamas and its lack of support for an Islamic caliphate. A recent tweet from one jihadist scolds: “The Hamas government is apostate, and what it is doing does not constitute jihad, but rather a defense of democracy.”
Hamas’ provenance accounts for some of its longstanding differences with extremist groups. The group originated as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood: an Islamic social movement founded in Egypt in 1928 that won broad-based support by addressing issues like economic inequality, colonialism, public health, education, and natural resources management. The Muslim Brotherhood most recently gained international attention as a political agent in Egypt following the Arab Spring, but the group has a longer history of operating as a community organization. Hamas’ ties with the Muslim Brotherhood afforded the group a degree of religious legitimacy and respect within occupied communities from the onset. Religion is at the core of many Palestinians’ (and numerous other peoples’ around the world) individual and collective identities and daily life. Religious practice can offer comfort and stability in the face of existential threat, and 80 percent of Palestinians say they turn to religion to cope with the stress and hardships of the Israel-Palestine conflict. As one young Gazan girl explained, “Out there is the Israeli military. It is dangerous here. Islam and its regulations protect us.” Utilizing its control of many mosques and religious schools in Gaza, Hamas has won and maintained support through a combination of religious, militant, and grassroots, social services-driven initiatives.
Women and Hamas
Women’s involvement in militant Islamic organizations, including Hamas, seems to baffle many Western and Israeli academics, policymakers, and commentators. From their perspective, it seems counterintuitive that a woman would support a violent organization that openly advocates “gender apartheid” and other “backwards” social policies. Indeed, Hamas has set forward certain limits on women’s lives. Hamas requires that women wear “modest clothing” in courtrooms and universities and don the hijab: a scarf that covers the head and neck. Western and Israeli commentators often point to the hijab as a sign of gender oppression in Islamic societies. For example, in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, Susan Okin frames hijab as an a priori repressive practice imposed by men in power. In Palestine, however, wearing hijab can have different meanings outside of Hamas-facilitated oppression. Azza al-Kafarna, a women’s rights activist and journalist in Gaza, explains:
Women are covering themselves more, not necessarily because Hamas tells them to, but because they are afraid…life still feels precarious. The veil for some women is perhaps a physical shield against the world. It may also, ironically, be one of the few things she feels she has control over.
Hamas frames Islamic dress code as a means of supporting the nationalist movement: wearing the hijab is encouraged as a sign of commitment to the resistance, whereas bare-headed women are perceived as “vain and frivolous, or, at worst, anti‐nationalist.” Reporting from Gaza, journalist Kai Adler wrote, “[t]he veil has come to signalize a woman’s identity, and her commitment to the Palestinian Cause.” For certain women, in certain places, the hijab can be an empowered choice that makes them feel safer and/or more connected to their cultural heritage. As Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif explains: “We are really tired of people outside telling us how to live our lives and how to organize our society and what is best for us as women.” In “Back Down Mubarak,” Moroccan rapper Master Mimz offers another critique of the Western hand wringing over the hijab: it ignores more pressing issues like economic inequality. She raps: “First things first, give me a job. Then let’s talk about my hijab.”
Hamas has earned support in Gaza in part by providing basic necessities and social services. Many Gazan women have come to depend on, and now run, Hamas-sponsored health clinics, childcare centers, schools, and women-only gyms and beauty parlors. Hamas’ efforts to improve the quality of life of women in Gaza helps explain why, in the lead-up to the 2006 elections, one poll found that the organization was 14 percent more popular among Gazan women than men. Hamas may also have gained support from women because of the organization’s endorsement of women’s role in the resistance to occupation. As the Hamas Charter states:
The Moslem women have a no lesser role than that of men in the war of liberation; they manufacture men and play a great role in guiding and educating the [next] generation…That is why it is necessary to pay great attention to schools and the curriculum followed in educating Moslem girls, so that they would grow up to be good mothers, aware of their role in the battle of liberation.
This statement has conservative undertones in that it frames women as important and valuable to the extent that they fulfill traditional gender norms—but, importantly, the text also openly advocates women’s education. This is an important difference between Hamas and extremist organizations that seek to end women’s education. In addition, the “relegation” of women to the domestic sphere can be read as a means of protecting culture and identity in the ongoing conflict with Israel. As Professor Leti Volpp contends:
Nationalist discourse used in various anticolonial struggles relie[s] upon the figure of women to strengthen notions of culture and tradition…The fusing of gender with culture and tradition continues when the space of the ‘home’ and practices within it provide an oasis of secure identity for communities experiencing dislocation or subordination.
Through this lens, women play an important role in the resistance by defending and preserving their threatened national identity.
Hamas also looks to women to teach their children the importance of resistance. The organization gives mothers of martyrs financial assistance and sometimes political influence. Mariam Farahat, for example, became known as Mother of the Struggle after encouraging three of her sons to undertake Hamas suicide missions. Today, she is an elected Hamas official. In many ways, Farahat represents the “ideal” jihadist mother as laid out in the Hamas Charter, having educated her sons in Islamist principles and facilitated their self-sacrifice for the cause. Ibrahim Z’arour, Professor of History at the University of Damascus, describes that martyrdom is a sacred tradition in which mothers play an essential role:
The mother in our Arab and Islamic history has always sacrificed her children and prepared them for martyrdom…The mother is the school that prepares the children and sends them to martyrdom in defense of the homeland. This culture is within all of us. I always see mothers who utter cries of joy when they learn that their sons were martyred in battles in Palestine, in the Golan Heights, or Iraq.
While Z’arour’s account glosses over the countless mothers who are devastated, not overjoyed, upon learning of their children’s martyrdom, the cultural value of personal sacrifice and dying for the life of homeland is an important element in understanding violent resistance.
The Right to Martyrdom
While Hamas stresses women’s domestic value, the organization also supports their right to fight. The Charter states that “resisting and quelling the enemy [is] the individual duty of every Moslem, male or female. A woman can go out to fight the enemy without her husband’s permission.” Gazan women have long participated in protests and violent actions taken against Israeli occupation, and are active in Hamas’ police force, Qassam (Hamas’s military wing), combat missions, and suicide bombing operations. 
Hamas first condoned female suicide bombing missions in 2002. Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, co-founder of Hamas, stated: “there is no reason that the perpetration of suicide attacks should be monopolized by men.” Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a Hamas spiritual leader, gives religious credence to this position: “The Prophet [Muhammad] always emphasized the woman’s right to wage Jihad.” The first Hamas female suicide bomber, Reem Riyashi, killed four Israeli soldiers in January 2004. Hamas’ subsequent use of female suicide bombers has been rare, but it remains a useful strategy for the group, in part because it plays off Israeli gender bias. As the Israeli Security Forces stated in response to a female suicide bombing, female combatants are sometimes more effective than men because they are assumed to be “soft, gentle, and innocent.” The paramilitary strategy of capitalizing on the supposed “innocence” of women is hardly unique to Hamas: resistance movements in Northern Ireland, for example, have used similar tactics. Female combatants can also utilize gender bias to “shame” their male peers into action. A 2008 editorial in a popular Egyptian newspaper lauded female suicide bombers to stir male readers:
It’s a woman!! A woman, oh men of the nation, …who teaches you today a lesson in heroism, who teaches you the meaning of Jihad, and the way to die a martyr’s death…It is a woman who blew herself up, and with her exploded all the myths about women’s weakness, submissiveness, and enslavement.
A substantial body of Western and Israeli scholarship and journalism, exemplified by Barbra Victor’s 2003 book Army of Roses: Inside the World of Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers, argues that female suicide bombers are mentally frail and “seduced” by male extremists to go against their womanly nature as the “bearers of life.” Israeli media coverage perpetuates this view, painting female extremists as women with “difficult social backgrounds who come from the margins of Palestinian society and have problems at home, mostly relating to their family situation.” Other theorists argue that suicide bombers are suicide-prone and suffer from borderline personality disorder, aggressiveness, and/or narcissism. Professor Emad Salib attributes suicide bombings to folie à plusieurs (the madness of many) in which a group of people is beguiled by a shared delusion. But where suicide is commonly understood in the West as a last-resort expression of depression or other mental illness, a maliyat fida’iya (operations of self sacrifice) are an important element within Palestinian resistance culture. For some, to die for the Palestinian cause is to guarantee oneself eternal life in the cultural imagination—and bears resemblance to the Western glorified concept of death in battle.
Jamila Abdallah Taha al-Shanti, one of Hamas’s highest-ranking female politicians, argues that:
Islam does not prohibit a woman from sacrificing herself to defend her land and her honor. It is she who was attacked, and she has the right to defend herself in any way… Jihad is a personal imperative for her and no one can prevent her from waging it.
Al-Shanti’s statement frames violent resistance as a deeply personal and individual choice, disrupting Western and Israeli narratives of combatants, especially female combatants, being coerced into violence. While there are strong forces at play (such as poverty, politics, or religion) that might influence the choice of violence, stripping an individual of agency in their context can be condescending and patronizing — purporting to know another person more than they know themselves. Determining agency in any situation depends on one’s definition of free will in various contexts. In this paper, I am not attempting to provide one single definition of free will or choice, but rather explore what some Palestinians living in occupation embody and defend as their agency and prerogative.
The supposed paradox of the female suicide bomber is based on two false assumptions, aptly described by Professor Nimmi Gowrinathan: “first, that women are more peaceful than men by nature; and second, that women who participate in armed rebellion are little more than cannon fodder in a man’s game, fighting foolishly for a movement that will not benefit them.” Countless examples of female combatants throughout time and place help dismantle the first assumption that women are inherently peaceful. The second assumption is more stubbornly entrenched in Western academic and popular thought, propped up by narrow-minded feminist frameworks. Texts like Army of Roses and Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? identify systems of oppression and sexism in religious organizations and ideologies, but then ignore evidence of agency and political objectives within these contexts. As Volpp writes, “the insistent focus on immigrant and Third World women as victims also leads many to deny the existence of agency within the patriarchy, ignoring that these women are capable of emancipatory change on their own behalf.”
The choice of self-sacrifice can be seen as an expression of agency and connection with religion and culture. Political scientist Robert Pape explains:
Few suicide attackers are social misfits, criminally insane, or professional losers. Most fit a nearly opposite profile: typically they are psychologically normal, have better than average economic prospects for their communities, and are deeply integrated into social networks and emotionally attached to their national communities.
As anthropologist Nasser Abufarha writes in The Making of a Human Bomb: An Ethnography of Palestinian Resistance, self-sacrifice has become “the icon of the Palestinian resistance, symbolizing bravery, honor, and sacrifice,” a way to show “defiance to the international order and assert agency, self-reliance, control over life, and a long sought independence against a backdrop of historical political domination.” Abufarah finds that Palestinian martyrdom bombings grew in popularity not out of desperation or religious fanaticism, but rather as a means of reproducing the same kind of terror and fear that is experienced daily in the West Bank and Gaza. Far from incomprehensible, suicide bombing is an example of “how violence may become a logical, meaningful and intelligible practice.” Renowned Palestinian psychologist Eyad El-Sarraj – founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme clinic and consultant to the Camp David 2000 delegation – published an insightful study on this phenomena and the roots of resistance in Palestinian children following the first intifada. He describes:
[The children] were reacting to the sight of the humiliation of their fathers, who were helpless when abused or beaten by Israeli soldiers. The children were identifying with new symbols of power that they saw raging in the streets. They were magnetized by armed soldiers, and by mysterious masked and daring activists…During the course of the Intifada, over 100,000 Palestinians were detained in prison and the vast majority of them tortured. More than 2,000 people were killed, a third of them children. Ninety percent of children were exposed to tear gas. Fifty-five percent of children witnessed the beatings of their fathers or elder brothers. Forty percent of children were beaten. Nineteen percent of children suffered a host of wide-ranging injuries.
El-Sarraj reiterated this point in a later interview, explaining: “The children who…watched their fathers and other male relatives being beaten and humiliated by Israeli forces…are the martyrs of today.”
In The Making of a Human Bomb, Abufarha explains how “[d]eath is about living, not dying. To die is to live through the iconic image of the martyr within the cultural politics of the resistance and through the freedom and unity of Palestinian peoplehood and the land of Palestine that is created in the cultural imagery.” Mouna Mansour, a leading female Hamas politician, makes a similar but slightly different point—suicide bombings are still about life, but for the Palestinian community, not the individual: “People do this from anger and injustice,” she writes, “to bring back life to their own people by sacrificing their lives.”
Women’s right to martyrdom, then, can be seen as an indication of agency in the Palestinian context. Women’s pursuit of jihad does not make them categorical victims, ignorant of their own oppression. If anything, the Palestinian resistance movement has, in its acceptance of women, opened up a space for them to negotiate their role in the broader society. In the words of one female Palestinian resistance fighter: “we are struggling for independence, but we don’t want to compromise our role as women… the Intifada has created a new discursive space in which Palestinian women can challenge the dominant conception of Palestinian nationalist agency.” In Brides of Palestine/Angels of Death: Media, Gender, and Performance in the Case of the Palestinian Female Suicide Bombers, Dorit Naaman argues:
When women opt to fight alongside men, they challenge the dichotomy of woman as victim/man as defender. Women fighters are physically strong, are active (therefore agents), and, most important, are willing to kill (hence, they are violent). They challenge not only the images of women as victims of war but also the traditional patriarchal binary opposition that postulates women as physically and emotionally weak and incapable of determining and defending the course of their own lives.
Over time, female members of Hamas have also found means of fighting occupation and gender norms outside of violent resistance.
The Right to Politics
As Hamas evolved from a fringe opposition group to a democratically elected governing party, women ascended in political influence. After her election, al-Shanti was triumphant: “We [the women of Hamas] are going to spread out through society. We are going to show the people of the world that the practice of Islam in regards to women is not well known.” al-Shanti also argued that women had long had an influential role within Hamas. Electoral success just formalized it: “Women,” she argued, “and especially the wives of top Hamas leaders, had long played a central role in Hamas’s leadership…Every decision that is taken by Hamas is passed to [women], not after the decision is made but before.”
In the run-up to the 2006 election, Hamas sent female volunteers to campaign door-to-door and at polling places. Mkhaimar Abusada, professor of political science at Al Azhar University in Gaza City, remarked that, “It’s something noticeable in the Gaza Strip. In Palestinian society, our values do not accept women to go out and campaign in the street. It’s really a new phenomenon, especially for Hamas.” Women’s strong turnout was the result of years of careful planning. Abusada described how Hamas had mobilized its female followers as if it had been “building up for this occasion for 30 years.” In many ways, it had: Hamas’ near-monopoly on cultural institutions and public goods has afforded it strategic access to the voter base. The organization established religious and educational programs specifically geared towards women, allowing for the influence of their political opinions and understandings. As one female university student, whose education was sponsored by Hamas, explained, “Before Hamas, women were not aware of the political situation. But Hamas showed and clarified what was going on. Women have become much more aware.” This statement hints at some possible indoctrination – or at least substantial control over messaging. But it is problematic and inaccurate to claim that all the women who support Hamas are brainwashed by propaganda and unable to think independently. Many women made a clear choice to support Hamas because the main alternative, Fatah, has spent little time working for or with women, whereas Hamas has consistently provided opportunities otherwise nonexistent for women in Gaza. Reem Abu Athra, who directs women’s affairs in the Fatah youth wing, conceded, “Fatah took women for granted, and this is one reason it lost [in 2006].”
In 2013, Hamas appointed its first female spokesperson: Isra al-Modallal, a divorced single mother who was partially educated in United Kingdom. al-Modallal’s employment as the organization’s public face contradicted dominant Western/Israeli perceptions of Hamas. A well-educated single mother, committed to humanitarian causes and women’s empowerment, is hardly the type of woman most Western and Israeli observers would expect as the representative of a regressive “terrorist” group. Ihab al-Ghussein, head of Hamas’s media department, appointed al-Modallal as part of a larger effort to connect with Western audiences and work on “strengthening and emphasizing the role of Palestinian women.” al-Ghussein hired other young female journalists and media experts; launched a new government website and social media campaign to reach a broader, more diverse audience; and advocates that women should be treated as equals in Palestinian society. al-Modallal insists that women are making progress in Gaza, excelling in fields such as medicine, politics, education, and media. “Every day,” she has said, “women’s footsteps can be seen advancing more in society.” In a different interview, al-Modallal argued “Palestinian women take an active role in the street, in organisations, in the media…We have all the freedom we need.”
al-Modallal is paid to present Hamas in a favorable light to a Western audience, which likely influences her messaging. For some, she serves as an encouraging example of an empowered woman working with Hamas, but is not representative of all women in Gaza. Gender oppression and violence is still widespread. According to one 2011 poll, 51 percent of married women in Gaza reported having experienced domestic violence in the preceding year; 65 percent said they would not seek help or report domestic violence. Domestic violence shelters and reproductive care clinics are noticeably absent in Gaza. Unmarried couples and single women are routinely harassed by Hamas authorities. Naramin Farah, a Gazan painter, laments, “There is a lot of pressure for the Palestinian woman to stand by her man, to support him, be part of him…So many doors have been closed to Palestinian women in Gaza. It’s like getting out of one prison only to find another door closed.”
The Right to Art
Varied experiences and cultural conflict is often expressed through art. As Farida Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights, argues: “Art constitutes an important vehicle for each person, individually and in community with others, as well as groups of people, to develop and express their humanity, worldview and meanings assigned to their existence and development.” The plight of the Through Women’s Eyes Film Festival (TWEFF), organized annually by the Palestinian Women’s Affairs center in Gaza City, epitomizes the challenges that female artists face in Gaza. In 2013, TWEFF featured 21 films, most of which were directed by women and nearly all of which addressed one or more “taboo” topics. For example, Rima Mahmoud, director of The Red Stain, used the camera to illuminate Palestinian traditions and perceptions of virginity. Several male community members threatened to sue her. Mahmoud explains, “The film has posed serious challenges for me, but I decided to go ahead with it against all odds.” In the end, The Red Stain was screened, but another one of her films, which dealt with the issue of incest, was banned.
Even the threat of censorship can have profound consequences: Itimad Washah, a female filmmaker and the festival’s general coordinator, conceded that the expectation of government censorship had led to preemptive self-censorship on the part of both filmmakers and festival organizers. She explained, “We did not want what happened in the 2010 film festival to happen again. Back then, the [government] committee omitted many scenes, in one instance because the shorts a woman was wearing were too short.” Up until two days before the festival, Washah feared the event would be cancelled because it had not received a permit from the Ministry of the Interior. Artistic performances in Gaza require three permits: one from the Ministry of Culture, another from the Ministry of the Interior, and a third from the Gazan police. If any of these permits is missing, the show can be shut down. The permits are also granted with an important caveat: “Provided that [the performance] complies with the applicable laws and regulations and with respect to customs and traditions,” effectively allowing the authorities to shut down a permitted performance at any time, should they so desire.
Wala Mutir has spent nearly a decade as a theater actress in Gaza, but still laments that, “Society doesn’t accept my career and will not accept it. I consider it a hobby more than anything else.” Islam Abu al-Said, who eventually agreed to play the lead in The Red Stain, faced opposition from her own family: “When my mother learned of the idea behind the film, she reproached me for taking on something so bold. She tried to talk me out of the role.” During the film screening, the venue management kept the lights on because men and women were sitting in close proximity. Hamas has also compromised cultural infrastructure supporting Gaza’s independent artists. In 2012, for example, the organization dissolved the Fikra Association for Educational Arts due to alleged criminal and financial offenses that were never fully explained and considered suspect to many community members.
Since its election into power, Hamas’ censorship of the arts has been most stringent at times when tensions with Israel have been high. Based on this evidence, some argue that censorship increases in response to Israeli aggression, and should not be viewed as a core or unique tenant of Hamas’ ideology. This argument is strengthened by the fact that secular parties in Palestine also impose similar censorship measures during times of conflict. At a 2014 arts festival in the Fatah-led West Bank, plainclothes Palestinian security officers harassed two young artists about their permits and right to perform. Criticism of President Abbas of the Fatah party is also harshly punished. University lecturer Ismat Abdul-Khaleq, for example, was arrested and held in solitary confinement because he criticized Abbas on Facebook. Palestinian journalists Mamdouh Hamamreh, Rami Samara, Youssef al-Shayeb have also faced jail time for criticizing Palestinian officials and reporting on corruption among Fatah diplomats. 
Much of the art and artists allowed visibility in Gaza must focus on Hamas-approved themes. Anti-occupation protest art made by prisoners in Israeli prisons, for example, is usually showcased without question. Mukarram Abu Alouf, a female government official who curated one exhibit of prisoner’s artwork, explained “the exhibition shows that Palestinians never give in, they never surrender…We can be creative even under the most difficult circumstances.” The occupation is a common theme in Gazan art, regardless of Hamas encouragement. As Palestinian theater director George Ibrahim puts it: “You cannot avoid the occupation—it’s controlling us and is present in every part of our daily details. It’s like we are married to it with no way to divorce.”
While Hamas censorship is a significant obstacle, the occupation more consistently threatens the existence of art and artists in Gaza. In both 2011 and 2012, Israeli blockades prevented the film festival from taking place at all. In 2013, several films directors were unable to attend the festival because of difficulties crossing the border. Blockades and restrictions on movement have a profound impact on the artistic community. As one painter describes, “I have stopped looking at the [international gallery] invitations that are sent to me, because I know that I will not be able to leave the Gaza Strip.” When asked if she could grow artistically in Gaza, Palestinian animator and painter Haneen Ibrahim Nofal was clear that she loved and needed her community—“I draw for Gaza. I don’t think that my artistic skills could exist without Gaza.”—but also admitted that her career had suffered from the conflict:
I usually draw at night, but night turned into a beast in Gaza during [the 2014] war, because the attacks intensified during that time…We were busy running in the house. We moved from our house to another house because it was threatened and I took with me a few papers and I drew some drawings but I couldn’t publish them because I had no electricity. They were difficult days. I wasn’t just afraid. It was a mixture of feelings, fear and grief and sorrow for the situation. I lost hope in achieving the dream that I used to live for. I live for my drawings. I live for a dream to become a professional artist but during that time I lost hope in this dream. I thought I was going to die before becoming the person I want to be.
The Israeli occupation has also destroyed crucial pieces of cultural infrastructure. The Gaza Music School, for example, which primarily taught music to young girls between the ages of seven and eleven, was razed in a 2009 airstrike. Several other art schools and community centers have been damaged or destroyed by Israeli military action. Rebuilding is often impossible, as construction supplies are extremely limited in Gaza. Israeli sanctions also severely limit the importation of art supplies. As one artist and gallery owner described:
Starting in 2007, we witnessed a gradual shortage of art supplies. Their scarcity increased during these last months of the blockade, and we have begun using colors that are not suited for painting and are not intended for artistic purposes. As a result, paintings are losing their quality, and the weather is affecting their lifespan.
Even when supplies are available, they are prohibitively expensive. In recent years, for example, the price of one tube of paint has increased from $4 to $14. The price of art supplies overall has nearly doubled since 2007. Many artists have been forced to improvise, using cardboard as canvass and making paints from kitchen spices. Others have turned to filmmaking, recording, and video art, mediums less dependent on scarce traditional visual art supplies. But these mediums present their own challenges: equipment is often still cost-prohibitive, and Gaza is plagued by constant electricity shortages, with blackouts at times lasting days.
The occupation impacts the Gazan music scene as well. In the documentary Slingshot Hip Hop, Gazan rapper Ibrahim records his first demo. Seconds into the first song, the electricity is shut off and he is unable to record. At night, he describes how his work (and sleep) is interrupted by the sounds of gunfire and rockets: “it’s like there’s this tape player next to you and you can’t turn it off. It just plays by itself and you have to stay there listening, disturbed by it but unable to stop it.” Earlier in the film, members of the popular rap group DAM describe Palestinian rap both as a source of news—describing, “it’s our CNN,”—and as an alternative to violence. But despite rap’s growing popularity, or perhaps because of it, Hamas has cracked down on performances. Even the most popular male rappers are denied performance permits. Mohammad Antar, for example, toured Europe in 2010, only to come home to Gaza and find himself effectively prohibited from performing. Many rap concerts have been cancelled or shut down mid-performance, and several rappers have been beaten and detained by the police. Given these dangers, aspiring female rappers in Gaza tend to keep their musical inclinations private. In the unlikely case that they are granted passage out of Gaza, they choose to pursue artistic careers abroad.
A growing number of female Palestinian artists—working in a diversity of mediums—provide commentary from the diaspora. Women living outside of Gaza have different resources and avenues of exploring the situation they left behind. In the “Where we Come From” project, Palestinian-American artist Emily Jacir asked Palestinians who were not able to move freely, “If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?” Using her American passport, Jacir was able to perform and document the requests. One man, who had been denied access to Jerusalem by Israeli authorities, asked Jacir to place flowers on his mother’s grave. Another asks her to play soccer with local kids in his old hometown.
Other female artists working abroad have used their distance to critique religious conservatism. Laila Shawa, a prominent Palestinian artist originally from Gaza, argues that making women wear a veil is a Bidaa: “something which was introduced to Islam…but has nothing to do with the teachings of Islam.” As she sees it:
The resurgence of the veil, starting with the Islamic revolution in Iran and its spread into the Middle East, was more of a sociopolitical phenomenon designed to control and subdue women, the so-called weaker sex, as a result of men losing control of their lives due to Western hegemony and complicit and corrupt dictatorships, in their various forms.
Several internationally successful female Gazan filmmakers—Tanya Habjouqa, Fida Qishta, Annemarie Jacir, and Sawsan Qaoud—depict facets of Palestinian life that are overlooked by the mainstream media, such as women’s participation in community organizing and professional sports. Other internationally-sponsored community organizations and artist collectives in Gaza, such as the Eltiqa Group, the French Cultural Center, and Windows From Gaza, continue to offer support, training, and working space for emerging artists and intellectuals.
Women have made great strides in writing and new media. Birzeit University’s progressive newspaper, Al-Hal; the Gazan newspaper Al-Bayader al-Siyasi; and the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation are all led by women. Women have also begun producing their own newspapers, including Sawt al-Nissa’ (The Voice of Women) and Al-Ghaida’ (Beautiful Woman), the former published in Ramallah, the latter by the Women’s Affairs Center in Gaza. Two weekly radio programs, Did al-Samt (Against Silence) and Through the Eyes of Women, address women’s issues in the Palestinian territories. The Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling hosts an annual Media Forum that trains men and women to discuss such issues as domestic violence, gender and the media, and gender and law.
Despite the multi-dimensional obstacles Gazan artists face, recent years have seen the emergence of independent, gender-diverse artistic and intellectual endeavors. The play Kull Shi Tamaam (Everything is Fine), for example, written by local playwright Atef Abu Seif and performed in Gaza, boldly addresses sexism in Palestinian society. The play begins with three women struggling to break out of the tight white burial shrouds they are wrapped in. They eventually free themselves and destroy the “Invisible Force” holding them back (the Force is played by a man). Along the way, Kull Shi Tamaam touches on a gamut of challenges facing Gazan women, including clashes between Fatah and Hamas, the denial of equal education, myriad social pressures, and the Israeli occupation. The play is a powerful show of women’s agency and self-expression in Gaza.
Women are central to Hamas’ political success and valued as active fighters in the resistance, yet they are subject to censorship, violence, and systemic inequality in education and employment. Hamas has promoted single and divorced women to positions of power, yet unmarried couples are routinely stopped for questioning by the police. The organization has at times prohibited Gazan women from riding bicycles or smoking hookah pipes, yet permitted the performance of a play that explicitly calls for women’s empowerment and overthrow of the patriarchy.  This does not mean that Hamas is any more incoherent or contradictory than other governing organizations. Cultures and organizations, like individuals, are complex and changing.
The Western and Israeli assumption and treatment of Hamas as an inflexible and regressive organization, grouped with Islamist and terrorist organizations, misunderstands the primary motivations of the group. Journalist Ali Mamouri delineates: “[Hamas] has political priorities in liberating Palestinian land, whereas [Salafist Islamic extremists] have religious priorities in the establishment of a totalitarian Islamic caliphate.” Senior al-Qaeda leader Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi has firmly stated that Hamas and al-Qaeda share “neither ideology nor doctrine.” The notion that Hamas is less “extremist” than ISIS or al-Qaeda does not automatically mean that it is a benign or progressive organization– but depictions of the group as an uncompromising threat set on oppressing women misses crucial elements of the group’s actual composition, objectives, and attitudes regarding difference. Citing Hamas’ treatment of women as a reason for political, economic, or military intervention risks using oppression of women as a justification for oppressing women.
About the Author:
Sigrid von Wendel studies gender, identity, systems of oppression, and social movements at New York University. She received her undergraduate degree in Political Science from Yale University and hails from Western Massachusetts. Daughter of a glass-ceiling-shattering mother, Sigrid hopes to spend her life honoring and contributing to feminist and social justice activism.
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