GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — This summer, Maisara Abu Shamala, a painter, organized two trips with her friends to a vacation property she had rented. “The trips were fun,” she told Al-Monitor. “We swam the entire day without an abaya or veil. Women feel comfortable in these private rentals, which usually consist of several bedrooms, closets, a bathroom, a kitchen and a small garden with a big swimming pool for adults and another small one for children.”
Given the high demand for rental properties in summer, Abu Shamala said that it was not easy to find one in the Nuseirat camp, in central Gaza, but she eventually succeeded. “A rental property costs 400-600 shekels [$106-160] per day, and what made me think of booking one is that my husband does not allow me to go to the beach given the presence of a lot of men there,” she said. “Also, I do not like it when the wet abaya sticks to my body and becomes somewhat revealing.”
Even though the rental properties are costly, Abu Shamala's husband wanted her to go to a private swimming pool. By contrast, an outing to a public beach is limited to transportation fees, about 20 shekels ($5) maximum.
At the private pools at these properties, Abu Shamala said, women can wear lightweight clothes and therefore swim more easily. They listen to music and generally have fun, laughing like kids, which is something they cannot do at the beach. Conservative Palestinian society rejects the idea of women swimming in broad daylight in front of men and being loud in public places.
Mohammed Ahmed is among the men who does not allow his wife and sisters to swim at the beach when there are men around. “I went to the beach [the other day] and waited for the sunset to allow my wife and sisters to swim, but a group of men were near us, and they only left the place when we were about to leave,” he told Al-Monitor. “Therefore, my wife and sisters couldn’t swim, and we went back home.”
Ahmed further explained, “I know that my wife and sisters are entitled to enjoy swimming, as I did with the kids, but the conditions were not favorable, and I would not allow them to swim in front of men, because I do not want them to be offended by anyone. I want to avoid problems, because I would not hesitate to hit whoever says an inappropriate word to them or gives them an inappropriate look.”
Ahmed al-Shaer booked a rental for his family as well as his brothers and sisters and their families west of Gaza City for a night. “The family enjoys some privacy in these rental properties and can stay overnight, unlike when we go to a public beach,” Shaer said. “Also, at a private property, the family organizes competitions for the kids and quizzes for adults and can enjoy some music without annoying anyone. In addition, women can learn to swim and stay in the pool all day.”
Rizk Helou, director general of tourism at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, told Al-Monitor, “Early this year, the government formed a committee consisting of [representatives from] the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Civil Defense and the Ministry of Local Government to oversee their field of competence in regard to vacation rentals. The Ministry of Health ensures that the water is clean in swimming pools and regularly recycled.”
He continued, “For its part, the Ministry of Civil Defense ensures that safety requirements are respected and makes sure that fire extinguishers, escape ladders, warning signs, first aid kits and means of communication are always available. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities makes sure vacation rentals are provided with a fence so that people’s privacy is protected and pools are not exposed to high buildings. These rentals are usually found in areas far from the heart of the cities.”
Helou said that the number of privately owned vacation properties increases every summer and that his ministry does not have accurate statistics on them. The committee monitoring the properties has, however, according to him, requested the closure of some properties for their failure to meet the required security, privacy and health conditions.
Zuhair Mlakhah, a psychologist, told Al-Monitor, “Private vacation homes allow women to enjoy their time without worrying about social constraints that require them to wear abayas to swim in the sea, to only swim after sunset and to stay close to the shore.”
He added, “There is a lot of prestige attached to booking a vacation rental in the Gaza Strip, as these cost around $100 for one family and resemble luxurious houses.”
Mlakhah said that swimming is one of the most stress-relieving types of sport and that leads women to practice this sport and book rentals, especially given that society favors private swimming for women.
Indeed, women in Gaza are seeking the privacy to be able to enjoy swimming free of the social constraints they face in public spaces. For them, these vacation properties are a great escape.