Photographer Monique Jaques intimately portrays the lives of Gaza girls as they pursue their dreams, navigating through overcrowded streets, barbed wires and defying rigid attitudes
The Gaza Strip is an overpopulated piece of land, where Palestinians feel choked by the Israeli occupation. Growing up there as a girl is even harder.
Six years ago, US photographer Monique Jaques was reporting on the war in Gaza. She was moved to see young women facing tremendous hardship as they reached puberty. Jaques followed some of them for two years, as they navigated through Gaza’s overpopulated streets, dealing with the Israeli occupation and defying local parochial attitudes. She documented their lives in various roles: from police officers to doctors to surfers and soccer players.
Her photographic enquiry has taken the form of a book of photos, Gaza Girls: Growing Up in the Gaza Strip, which will be published later this year.
TRT World recently met with Jaques in Istanbul.
Can you explain why growing up as a girl in Gaza is difficult?
Monique Jaques: Gaza is not an easy place. It’s very difficult. But I am trying to talk about something new. Life in Gaza is difficult for everyone but it is harder for women because Gaza is such a small place and everything is very physically close to each other. You live in a house with your family, brothers, and uncles in different floors. Everyone knows what you are doing. They are not nosy but they ask where are you going to hang out because that is the way that the community is when you live close. Now they live in cities but they still have this tradition. So it’s very hard when you want to go and figure out who you are, you want to discover yourself, want to make mistakes, try things and meet new people. But for girls it’s very hard because your family asks about you all the time – ‘are you talking to boys? Oh that’s not good, don’t embarrass your family.’
It’s very hard and you can’t leave, can’t go somewhere else to be a new person and reinvent yourself. So all these things keep you in this situation because of the literal and metaphorical boundaries in Gaza. But despite all of these things, the girls are hardworking. And they push and try to make their dreams come true.
You mean compared to boys, circumstances are different for girls?
MJ: Oh my God yeah, boys can do whatever they want all the time. They go to school, see friends, smoke shisha without any problem. But the girls are very watched and very careful. They have to stay at home, go to school but have to come [home] early. They are allowed to see friends but not later in the night.
In one of your interviews you say many of these girls want to leave Gaza. You think they can afford to leave?
MJ: It’s hard because they are different. I think a lot of girls want to leave and get education abroad in Jordan, in Turkey or anywhere. Not to leave forever, but just to try something different, discover and travel and to see something new. Imagine staying in the same place your whole life!
There are scholarships available for girls, which is really great. But right now it’s not a person who can help, it’s the government. The border in the Egyptian side used to be open and people could leave, but now it’s closed and it’s closed on the Israeli side so they are stuck. It’s hard to get anyone to help.
I have written letters and asked organisations and other people to help them get scholarships. I am only one person, I am a journalist. What I am trying to do through my work is to show everyone the positive side of Gaza, instead of the violence and the humanitarian conflict that the media focuses on.
How did you end up going to Gaza the first time?
MJ: I went to Gaza to cover the 2012 war and I went as a journalist. Once I was there I realised that there is much more that is happening there, in terms of the lives of the girls. So I kind of found that story even though I went there in a traditional way.
What was so convincing for you that you devoted a lot of your time to document the lives of these girls?
MJ: This kind of story takes a lot of time. It is not something that you go and meet people and then leave. No, this is something that takes a very long time. You know it is not easy to get girls to trust you with their secrets and their pictures, especially in Gaza so it took me a long time to put this together. It is not just one story, it is a book of many stories.
I needed a place where I can put all of the work for five years and all of these stories and I just needed a larger format to do so in a different way. I didn't know that I was making a book five years ago but what happened was that I kept going back to Gaza and maybe a year ago I decided these stories should be put into a book.
What was the experience like? Were you able to integrate well into the society?
MJ: When I go there, most of time I live with families. They would just take me. I was living with the girls I was photographing. I was staying with different families and that was really easy. People are very hospitable everywhere in Gaza. I communicated with them in English. I speak a little bit Arabic but each family has at least one who speaks English so they translated it for me.
How is it to be a young, unmarried girl in Gaza?
MJ: They have less freedom. A lot of girls in Gaza want to get married because they think they would have more freedom. And once they get married, it’s not as free as they had thought because they have to live in their husband’s family’s house and it’s a whole new family and they are foreign. They don’t know you and you don’t feel comfortable. A lot of the time it sounds like it’s a good idea to get married but it often isn’t. But a lot of them work in banks, companies, in different things which they really like doing to have the extra money, like pocket money, because even though they don’t pay rent it’s still nice to give that money to your family to buy things. They have a lot of freedom when they work and so a lot of them try to get job for that reason. In general it’s quite difficult to be unmarried because then you rely on your family.
Do they suffer from domestic violence?
MJ: Unfortunately, it’s a very common problem because families live so close. I think a lot of people are frustrated and are angry. In her lifetime a woman is almost seen like an object, like jewellery. So a lot of husbands think that women are not allowed to do what they want.
And of course a lot of people are working against it, they really try to cut down, and stop this problem.
How different are the Gaza girls from girls that you met in the Middle East and Africa? Are there struggles similar?
MJ: I worked in so many places and I met so many girls who are special.
Everyone is different of course, but women in Gaza are so resilient during their whole life. They are struggling, working, pushing and trying to deal with domestic violence but they still laugh and manage and find moments of joy everyday and it’s very incredible. People should give them credit for that.
Did you find any similarities between these girls and you as a teenager?
MJ: It’s funny that people always ask me that. When I was young I was crazy about travelling, all I wanted to do you know I lived in this house with my family and all I wanted to do was LEAVE, I just couldn’t wait and I was thinking about it all the time. The thing is that I got to go, I got to do that
I was given the opportunity to go and live here (Istanbul) and travel all the time. So, I see a lot of that desire not to go any place specifically but just to try something new, explore, discover and figure out who you are when you’re not near everyone that knows you, has known you since you’re a baby. When you go to a new school and you’re like ahhh [in excitement]. When you’re from Gaza, you’re never new because everyone knows you. That desire to discover is something that I think all girls have. That is why I think this book is so universal, like you can read it, Turkish girls can read it, Russian girls too, so there are a lot of similarities between me and these girls.
I am not Muslim and I didn’t grow up in the Middle East and we are not the same age. But I have this remembering, the things that they like, like they are very into Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber, I am not because I am a bit older but I remember having the same trends and being interested in pop music and clothing and their friends they are so close with their friends, you know girls, and I see that in myself of course, just being young and being excited about all these things around the world.
How would you imagine the life of Gaza girls if there was no conflict?
MJ: I don’t know. It’s hard to say what direction they would go. But it would be a good direction. Hopefully, they will be able to travel. Maybe the borders were open. It wouldn't be so conservative, because a lot of their culture used to get bottled up. Their families would be a little more relaxed.