Palestine: Breaking the lens that binds you - Gaza's women photojournalists


For many years, photojournalism in Palestine was the exclusive domain of men. Women were largely restricted to only taking pictures of weddings and social events. Recently, Palestinian women have burst on the photojournalist scene challenging these social norms, while receiving accolades for the work abroad. Although the Palestinian Territories are filled with stories that are worth documenting through the lens of a camera no matter who carries it, the number of female photojournalists is still relatively low in comparison with male photojournalists.

Twenty-one year old Eman Mohammad is one of the women breaking down these barriers in the Palestinian Territories. Winner of the Next Century Foundation’s 2009 New Media Award, Mohammad works for a foreign agency in Gaza, but despite this she told MENASSAT that society in Gaza, especially within the intellectual circles, hasn’t accepted her yet as a photojournalist.

“They think it’s a job that is tough and only suitable for men,” she says, adding that she feels highly unappreciated for her work and receives little encouragement from her male peers. She says they have been hindering her work. “Palestinian society is a patriarchal society and prefers men working rather than women.”

“Gaza war made me more stable”

The December-January Israeli war on Gaza was a perfect example of a situation that leveled the playing field for both sexes. Mohammad said she roamed Gaza along with her male colleagues, “subject to the same Israeli bombs dropped on civilian areas,” adding that she never hesitated in going out to transmit the truth to the world.

That included, according to the young photojournalist, seeing the severed limbs of Israeli bomb victims – women and children – which she said made her feel somehow more stable and responsible towards the people of Gaza.

Recounting the worst incident during the war, Mohammad saw a mother and her four children in the morgue after they were shot during the Israeli invasions of Beit Hanoun in the north of Gaza.

She said that after the assassination of photojournalist Fadel Shana, who was killed by an Israeli tank shell in April 2008, she realized that “documenting things in Gaza was a national duty” that was more important than showing sympathy. “Else it be forgotten,” she said.

By all accounts, this is what she did during the Gaza war.

Defying society’s refusal

Nour al-Halabi is another young photographer and documentary filmmaker. She said that after finishing her university studies, she began working at a radio station and continued her writing, but also said she felt that she hadn’t accomplished what she set out to do.

Al-Halabi told MENASSAT that it was the camera she was looking for all along, but that her discovery of photography was by “pure chance.” Years on, she said she prefers to work in photography and film rather than write.

“Working with the camera transports you to a different, more original world. What the camera sees is different than what we see with our eyes.”

Al-Halabi finished her first documentary - “Inta min wein” (Where are you from?) – last year, and is preparing for a new one. She echoes Eman Mohammad’s thoughts that, “Palestinian society still considers to be a male job,” and is actually highly critical of women working in the field despite their scarcity.

She pointed out that she ignores all the criticism against her when she carries the camera to cover an event, and tries to focus on her work to prove herself and rectify the society’s view of women.

Tough mission

Another photojournalist Eman Jomaa, winner of the Creative Women in Palestine 2009 prize, told MENASSAT that she has a magnificent feeling when standing behind the camera – “A feeling of joy mixed with challenge to the society which has refused the presence of women in this field,” which Jomaa says is due to Gaza’s cultural and social inheritance.

According to Jomaa, she and her colleagues have faced a very difficult mission; mainly confronting the Israeli occupation while at the same time confronting the internal obstacles presented her male colleagues.

Jomaa says that if Palestinian women, like the operative Leila Khaled, can bring down an Israeli aircraft, “They can definitely carry a camera and point it towards the occupation,” and other more sensitive internal issues.

“Photojournalism is a mission to defend the nation and the people through a lens,” she said, adding that she stills plans to extend her reputation on both the local and international photography scenes.

The cultural inheritance and female photographers

Manal Hasan, who works as a freelance photographer for a number of different Palestinian websites and newspapers disagrees with the others surveyed for this piece.

Hasan says that Palestinian society’s view of female photographers has changed, adding that she has received encouragement through her contact with the different social classes in Gaza society. She stressed that female photojournalists can put up obstacles for themselves or can work to erase them. Of course, Hasan concedes this is often dependent on the socio-cultural environment a woman comes from.

In another context, Manal said that the main problems facing Palestinian photographers - men or women - are the official permits that they must get from the Hamas Interior Ministry to take pictures in public places, or from the Tourism ministry or the police stations. Without obtaining them, she said, photojournalists risk being arrested and having their equipment confiscated.

She added, "Some photojournalists work as freelancers, which leaves them unprotected and subject to harassment.”

Meanwhile, photojournalists without proper permits are routinely asked for their journalist identification or accreditation from the Palestinian Journalist Syndicate which has been suspended for two years now due to internal divisions between Hamas and Fatah.

Manal said being accredited by the PJS can’t currently protect any journalist, man or woman.

GAZA, July 30, 2009 (MENASSAT)