Angela Robson and the Guardian whitewash domestic violence in Gaza.

Angela Robson’s July 30th article entitled Women in Gaza: how life has changed , which appeared in the Guardian’s World News section, was – for this reader at least – an exercise in time travel. 

Robson’s report opens with this:

Eman, 23, is dressed in a black, veiled jilbab and lives in a collapsing shack on the outskirts of Gaza City. She left school at 10 and seven years later she was married, with a baby daughter. An open sewer flows past her front door. When it rains, rubbish streams into the kitchen.

“Before the blockade, my husband used to make good money working in Israel,” she says. “With the blockade, that all stopped. When he can’t find any work and we have nothing to eat, he blames me. He is a like a crazy animal. I stay quiet when he hits me. Afterwards, he cries and says, if he had a job, he wouldn’t beat me.”

Robson’s remarkable contortions which enabled her to attribute everything negatively affecting women in the Gaza Strip – from domestic violence, increased societal conservatism and unemployment – to one single source (the ubiquitous Israeli ‘blockade’) transported me four decades back in time to the days of early feminist battles in the West. 

In those days, women seeking a better deal were often told by their Socialist comrades that there was in fact one sole cause of all their ills – be they low wages, lack of legal status, discrimination or domestic violence. That cause was of course Capitalism and – come the revolution – all would be well because everyone would then be liberated. Women who rejected the abstract narrative of ‘the system’ being the oppressor often found themselves abused as self-interested traitors to the greater cause.

Fortunately, there were those of us who refused to buy in to that Socialist narrative. Had we waited demurely and patiently for ‘the revolution’, we may well have still been waiting for our rights today. 

It is therefore extremely disheartening to see a 21st century writer – and particularly a female one writing in a supposedly Left-liberal publication – falling into the same decades-old trap. Sure; in this case Capitalism has been replaced by ‘the blockade’ and ‘come the revolution’ by an end to a non-existent ‘occupation’, but the same ability to avoid examining the real causes of women’s very real problems is just as pernicious as it was 40 years ago. 

However, this article is the second one by Robson to appear in the Guardian in three weeks which attempts to lay ills within Palestinian society exclusively at Israel’s door. Her previous attempt dealt with the subject of mental health and in that piece too, she conspicuously managed to avoid mentioning the word ‘Hamas’. 

The problems of unemployed Palestinians no longer able to cross into Israel to work in relatively well-paid jobs did not, of course, begin with ‘the blockade’. Those problems were actually caused by the Palestinian Authority’s decision to launch a terror war on Israel in the form of the second Intifada – which inevitably resulted in much stricter border control as a means of combating lethal terror attacks. And whilst unemployment is indeed devastating for families affected by it, Robson should surely be able to recognise the fact that having one’s family members blown to smithereens on a bus or in a shopping mall is even more so. 

According to Robson, that same (supposedly Israeli induced) unemployment is also the cause of a rise in domestic violence within the Gaza Strip. Robson does not bother to present statistics from before the blockade or the second Intifada as a means of comparison. Had she done so, she would have had to confront the fact that not only is domestic violence by no means a new phenomenon in that society, but it is also traditionally under-reported due to cultural and social factors.  

“But gathering information on what is a taboo topic in this Islamic society proved difficult. “Because of a gender-biased culture and the issue of shame, most of this violence is hidden,” …. “It’s not recorded and not discussed.” Most women do not believe they are victims of violence, even though their husband may abuse them, because they consider it “a husband’s right” — an attitude men share.” 

Whilst the link to the PCBS report quoted in Robson’s article does not work, and therefore it is not possible to analyze the figures she quotes, this 2006 report from the same Palestinian Bureau of Statistics indicates that a good two years before the introduction of the blockade aimed at reducing the flow of weapons to the Gaza Strip, some 72% of married women there suffered some form of abuse during 2005 and 98.2% reported experiencing some kind of abuse before 2005. Unmarried women over 18 fared little better, with 71% of them reporting some form of abuse during 2005 and 70.5% before 2005. 

Unfortunately, however, the subject of domestic violence and abuse in the Gaza Strip – against children and the elderly, as well as women – has in many cases become highly politicized and it is often used by interested parties as a weapon to attack Israel. This BBC report on the same subject from 2009 employs the same themes as Robson’s article and even has one interviewee with the same name. Especially disappointing is the fact that NGOs such as Oxfam – which organized and perhaps also paid for Robson’s trip to Gaza – do not refrain from making political hay out of this and other subjects

The situation of women of the Gaza Strip is not being helped by Western NGOs and journalists who whitewash – or, like Robson, completely ignore – the fact that the prevalence of gender-based violence there has considerably more to do with the fact that those women live in a society in which violence is entrenched in a culture powered and reinforced by patriarchy than it has to do with Israeli limitations on the import of weapons or dual-use goods. 

In fact, it is testimony to the bankruptcy of 21st century feminism and the so-called ‘human rights’ community that so many Westerners adamantly refuse to join the dots between the ever-increasing erosion of women’s rights under the Hamas regime, the worrying levels of domestic violence, the abuse of women and children and the existence of a culture which views certain sections of society as inferior and accepts violence as a problem-solving norm. 

The trouble with joining those dots, of course, is that the resulting picture will indicate that the same type of culture which ‘explains’ the beating of a woman because a man is unemployed can also ‘contextualize’ the firing of missiles at a kindergarten in Sderot or the bombing of a café as being the result of a similar ‘frustration’. Significantly, in neither instance is the abuser required to take responsibility for his part in the creation of the situation which so frustrates him or to face up to the fact that he considers violence against his ‘inferiors’ justifiable. 

That culture is no longer the sole province of religious fundamentalists in a rigid patriarchal society convinced of heterosexual male dominance. It is also now the domain of Westerners, such as Angela Robson and her Guardian publishers, so maimed by cultural relativity and so blinkered by their own political prejudices that they condemn both present and future generations of women in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere to an inheritance they would never entertain for their own daughters or themselves.

Hopefully, one day it will be possible to lift the blockade which curbs the flow of arms to the terrorist organizations which inflict a regime of fear both upon their own countrymen and the neighbouring Israeli civilians. But even when that day comes, the women of the Gaza Strip will unfortunately still have a very long way to go.

In the meantime, journalists such as Robson need to face up to the fact that not only are they doing nothing to contribute to bettering the lot of Palestinian women; they are actually playing an active part in delaying their progress to equality and liberation from violence by deliberately concealing the real causes of their oppression.

 I wonder if the women of Gaza will forgive them for that. 

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