It has become commonplace when reading about Gaza to come across descriptions of it as an "Islamist enclave" or "Hamas-controlled territory" and so on. In case someone exists who does not know what Hamas is all about, commentators make sure their readers understand that it is the "fundamentalist" group bent on the "destruction of Israel" and nothing else.
The Palestinians of Gaza, therefore, are often categorized as either ardent Hamas supporters or suppressed dissidents, including women, who receive the severest treatment imaginable, not only from the Hamas government, but also from misogynistic and backward average male residents. Such categorizations are then followed by sweeping generalizations about each of these stereotypes. Whereas the Hamas supporters consist of "terrorists" and "bloodthirsty barbarians," the dissents are seen as peace-loving minorities who seek neighborly relations with Israel, the occupying entity.
A recent example of such portrayals can be found in a feature story published in The Independent on April 13. In "Tales from Gaza: What Is Life Really Like in 'the World's Largest Outdoor Prison'?" the author alleges to provide "a small snapshot into life in Gaza." Before he proceeds, however, he assures us that what follows are "testimonies" by people "who can rarely get their voices heard."
At the start of six interviews, the author makes clear that all of those featured are men not because that was his intention — he is a Westerner who believes in gender equality after all — but because in his two and a half days in Gaza, he could not find a woman willing to speak to him "independently." In fact, the only occasion when he had the chance to speak to a woman, he tells us, was in the presence of a male guardian, the woman's husband in this particular instance. Hence, while he was able to "give voice" to men, his attempts to do the same for women were all thwarted.
Such assertions play into Orientalist notions. This usually results from foreign journalists coming to Gaza with a set of preconceptions about the place and its people and then seeking to confirm them rather than verify them. While Gaza is, indeed, no haven for women or anyone else, there are thousands of educated women who are willing to speak for themselves and do so in every field, from medicine, theater, and politics to fishing and farming.
Just a few months ago, a play written by the renowned Palestinian writer Samah Sabawi was read at one of Gaza's cultural centers, which continue to thrive despite Israel's ceaseless attempts at cultural de-development. Nearly all the participants who performed the play were women, as was the case with the vast majority of the audience. They were not accompanied by husbands, brothers or fathers in order to attend or to perform.
Events like this, however, hardly ever make it into the mainstream media. Moreover, any mention of a considerable number of women going out without a hijab instantly provokes expressions of surprise by those who have only heard about Gaza through mainstream and particularly Western publications. To say women in Gaza are also allowed to drive would sound like a lie to many ears.
Women are not the only part of this story. To claim that Gaza is "Islamist" automatically dismisses the existence of the leftist and secular groups there, most of which denounce religion in its totality. Homogenizing "life in Gaza" could not be more obvious than in The Independent feature.
Of the six interviews the author conducted, one was with a Hamas official, while four were with blue-collar male workers, and the remaining one was with an unemployed man. Despite being at odds with Israel, five of them belong to the category of "ready to forget the past," has no problem inviting former Israel prime minister Ariel Sharon for coffee, and even views Yitzhak Rabin — the man behind the Iron Fist that broke hundreds of bones in the lead up to and during the first Palestinian intifada — as a man of peace.
With the exception of the Hamas official, the interviewees followed suit in reiterating the same unconditional desire to achieve peace with Israel that one might think no other viewpoint existed. At the same time, they viewed Hamas as the primary source of their distress. Israel was seen as only secondary to their everyday ordeal.
That no evidence was provided to challenge the views in question suggests that there is none — just as the author claims to have found no women able to speak to him. Thus, portraying the residents of Gaza as a homogenous people who all experience life in the same way is condescending at best and Orientalist at worst. The views expressed in the article are undeniably extant but do not reflect the reality.
Israel, which has launched two deadly assaults on Gaza in less than five years, is rarely perceived as a friendly entity. The vast majority of the politicized and non-politicized segments of Gazan society are not ready to "forget the past" that continues to shape the lives of 1.1 million local Palestinians officially registered as refugees at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
Rana Baker is a student of business administration in Gaza and writes for the Electronic Intifada.