When war returned to Gaza in 2014, Amina, 35, faced two battle fronts: the Israeli bombardments decimating her neighborhood of Shejaiya, and the unrelenting physical and psychological abuse her husband inflicted on her and her six children.
Three years later, Amina shakes as she recalls her daily traumas, with all but her eyes covered by a black niqab.
“I’ve suffered in so many ways in my life,” she says. Initially married at 19 and now twice divorced, she requested her name be changed due to privacy and security concerns.
Amina is far from alone. For women and girls in Israeli-occupied and Hamas-controlled Gaza, all kinds of marriage-related problems loom large, as inescapable economic, political and socio-religious pressures erupt within domestic life.
The United Nations has warned that by 2020, Gaza could become “uninhabitable” for its nearly 2 million residents because of its debilitated economy and infrastructure. The coastal enclave has among the highest population density and unemployment in the world – a particularly volatile mix for its young people.
Today, while speculation over another war dominates politics, inside Gaza’s homes, women are struggling to make their own way forward.
Gazan women told News Deeply of troubles at every turn: from early marriage to the debt couples go into to afford traditional weddings, and the frequency of spousal abuse by husbands and family members.
Seated in a restaurant overlooking Gaza’s sewage-filled coast, Um Maged Hasouna, 62, who mediates marriage, inheritance and divorce issues at the Al-Mustaqbal Center for Violence Victims Care, warns: “After the wars, our women are [living] in very difficult conditions as a result of the economic conditions, the siege, unemployment, poverty, the [political] division. All of this impacts our people.”
“We are a masculine society,” she adds. “It’s not accepted to see a woman in a leadership position.”
Seated across the table from Hasouna is her coworker, Abu Salman al Mughany, 62, who believes that Gaza “is seeing the collapse of the social fabric in our communities.”
According to Gaza’s laws, women must be 17 years old to marry (and men 18). But the law also leaves room for a girl to be married earlier if a judge approves, says Amal Siyam, head of the Women’s Affairs Center. Traditionally, a woman lives with her family until marriage, at which point she becomes the responsibility of her husband. Men also provide a dowry, increasing the material benefits of marrying off a daughter.
While women are marrying younger, however, men are marrying older due to economic pressures – creating new marriage concerns, Siyam says.
It’s impossible for many young men to afford weddings, which typically cost thousands of dollars, along with other expenses, such as apartments. Housing is particularly burdensome as many have yet to rebuild from the destruction left by the 2014 war, and remain homeless or living in tight quarters. Israel blocks the import of cement, which can be used to make both buildings and bombs.
Funding mass weddings has now become one tool to garner goodwill for Hamas and Arab Gulf states. In recent years, “marriage facilitators,” or companies that provide low-cost weddings for a set cost to be repaid over time, have also increased in number. Critics say they further the cycle of troubled marriages by allowing poor young men without work to marry, while providing no material basis for a successful marriage. Meanwhile, the facilitators profit off the debt.
Samy Attalah, who runs the marriage-facilitating business Mashroua Farha (“Happiness Project”) defends his company’s practices. Attalah estimated that only 150 per 1,000 grooms don’t repay their debts, which he says the company lets slide, and that they try to find jobless grooms work or training to prevent increased poverty after marriage.
“Our struggle is to live and not just die and resist,” Attalah says. “Gaza is also a place of people who love to celebrate and be happy.”
That’s what Sameh, 26, hoped to find through marriage – but after three traumatic attempts, she’s jaded about what lies ahead.
Sameh left school in the 11th grade and first married at 19, shortly after the 2009 Hamas-Israeli war.
“From the beginning, we had no understanding,” she says of her husband.
She says her first husband was gay, a fact he hid until she witnessed him with another man. He divorced her: Under Hamas’ sharia law, it’s nearly impossible for a woman to divorce their partner, but easy for a man. He also kept their two children, as custody laws give complete control to the father once the children pass a certain age (which can range between 7 and 11 years old, depending on the situation).
Sameh was happy with her second husband – but unhappy about the abuse she received from his family, which the couple lived with, as they couldn’t afford their own home. She says her mother-in-law treated her like a servant, while her father-in-law, who was unemployed and at home all day, sexually assaulted her and other women in the household.
Still, Sameh stayed – until she was shocked one day to learn that her husband had divorced her, a process that can be undertaken in Gaza without the wife’s knowledge.
Sameh again returned to her family’s home. She was engaged once more, but called it off before the wedding: Her fiancé was addicted to pills, a growing problem in Gaza.
Divorce rates are on the rise, worrying many Gazans. Gendered laws provide marriage rights to women to an extent, like the right to separate from their husbands under certain circumstances, for example if he is absent or infertile. But the applications of these protections are inconsistent – particularly if a husband or family has connections in the Hamas-controlled government, according to Zeinab El Ghunaimi, head of the Center for Women’s Legal Research and Consulting in Gaza.
All this has left women like Amina stuck in painful situations. Amina’s husband won’t let her visit her six children, even though the law gives her visitation rights. She’s desperate to see them and, like others have, would even return to her abusive husband to care for them if he would take her back.
“Everything I’ve done is for my children,” she said. “They are my future. What is their guilt? What else can I do?”