We, the Women of Gaza, Face a Concrete Ceiling

After we manage somehow to break through the confines of our own society, we encounter a much greater and more sinister obstacle at the northern gates of the Strip.

Noor Swirki.

Last fall, I submitted a request for a permit to leave the Gaza Strip in order to participate in a UNESCO-sponsored forum for young people from the Middle East, which was to be held in Malta at the end of October.

For me, taking part in that conference meant fulfilling the dream of a lifetime. I was going there to meet leaders from around the world, as well as representatives of influential international organizations, diplomats, ambassadors from Arab and other countries. I was looking forward to a life-changing event that would open new horizons for me, giving me an opportunity to look at international issues through different lenses.

I truly and honestly believe that in order to build a safer and more forgiving world, we have to conduct an intercultural dialogue. I was scheduled to give a lecture at that conference, about the importance of including young people in regional initiatives, as well as in local and international ones. I was also supposed to conduct a workshop dealing with imagery and stereotypical representation of women in the media.

I was eagerly anticipating the chance to present for an international audience issues important to me and to other men and women in Gaza, with the aim of bringing about a change in our situation.

The request for an exit permit was submitted by UNESCO, and I started making the necessary preparations. First I thought of how to care for my family. We have a 6-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son, and while waiting for the permit I started making arrangements for the week I would be away.

The living room table was loaded with piles of clothes, neatly laid in a row, with a note attached indicating the day they should be worn, so that my partner wouldn’t have to worry about what the kids should wear each morning. I told their teachers I was going away so they would notice if they were unfocused or hadn’t done their homework.

I cleaned the house really well in order to preempt comments to the effect that I had left the kids behind without cleaning the house. I planned all the meals in advance with my partner. When everything was ready a day before departure, all that was left to do was to wait for the permit.

At midnight I got a call from UNESCO, informing me that they'd been told I would not be getting a permit. I was shocked. I refused to believe it, hoping that by morning I’d get a different answer. I sent an email to the checkpoint authorities and got the same reply – a refusal.

The conference began and I stayed home. I followed photos from the event, posted on Facebook by friends who did manage to get there. There they were, in a foreign setting, sitting at some well-known café, participating in important discussions.

The oppression I felt began to mount. For weeks I couldn’t unpack the suitcase I’d packed for the trip.

We, the women of Gaza, are in particular affected by the violation of our rights to freedom of movement. In any case we operate in a society governed by values that block our opportunities for advancement and for fulfilling our potential skills. We struggle, often successfully, to break through the confines of this system. However, when we manage to do so, we encounter a much greater and more sinister obstacle, at the northern gates of Gaza. After breaking through the glass ceiling, we encounter a much thicker and more oppressive one – this one made of concrete.

Noor Swirki is a political activist living in Gaza. Interviews she conducted with local women as part of her work at the Organization for Social Communication will appear in a report called “The Concrete Ceiling,” to be published this week by Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement.