When we think about Gaza, the strip of Palestinian territory to the east of the Mediterranean Sea, it’s conflict and casualties that first come to mind. The self-governing state has been at war with neighboring Israel for around 100 years, a seemingly intractable deadlock where violence and bombings flare up more or less every couple of years.
If you live in the Gaza Strip, life is limited by a number of factors. Your freedom of movement is restricted: it’s almost impossible to leave the 25-mile long and 3 to 7-mile wide piece of land, which is among the most densely populated areas in the world. Food, welfare, and power are in short supply. And you live in constant fear of resurgent danger. Last week, for example, news reports suggested that another war is brewing between the two states, after a Palestinian boy was killed on the border, and after Gaza’s governing body Hamas fired two rockets into Israeli territory. Last time there was a war, in 2014, more than 2,300 Palestinians were killed and 17,000 injured.
American photographer Monique Jaques first travelled to Gaza in 2012, to cover the war that was raging at the time. Working as a photojournalist for publications like The New York Times and The Economist, she was sent there to report, just as she would anywhere else. But after staying with a local family, she started to see a different story: “I felt like there was more to be said about Gaza,” she explains over the phone from Istanbul, where she is now based. “What was always reported in the media was the same aggressive war porn, but the people deserved more.”
Jaques started photographing the lives of young women for her project Gaza Girls, which is currently being compiled into a book (you can check it out here). Talking to these girls about how difficult it is to grow up in the country, she learnt that while there’s limited water and electricity, and unemployment is extremely high, for a woman, life is even harder. “I wouldn’t want to gloss over the war,” she expresses, “but by focussing on other aspects of the life there, and a group of people who are mostly hidden, I wanted to offer a powerful look at a world that’s unseen by many.”
A lot of what affects the lives of girls in Gaza isn’t just to do with conflict or violence, but a society that is extremely controlling and conservative, explains Jaques. “The culture is tight and watchful, there’s a certain amount of decorum around what’s done. Girls can do sports and other activities until they’re ready to get married, for example, then they have to stop because of family pressure. But a lot of these girls push and fight that in any way they can, which is super inspiring to watch.”
Take Hadeel, who Jaques photographed singing in a recording studio. She’s one of the few female singers in the country, the photographer explains, because Hamas does not encourage it. "Hadeel really wants to leave Gaza and sing elsewhere to expand her talent, but because she can’t leave it’s very difficult for her to grow as an artist," she says. "Still, she’s working with what she has and trying different things."
Jaques met Sabah, an aspiring professional surfer, when she was 14, and photographed her and her younger sister in the Mediterranean Sea, doing what they loved. Like Hadeel, Sabah was never able to leave Gaza to surf anywhere else and on Jaques' most recent trip to the state, just last week, she learnt that Sabah is now married and pregnant. Before the wedding, her family had to ask her to stop surfing.
“I saw and continue to see so much of myself in these girls,” says Jaques, “they have this desire to travel and explore and to be independent like I did at their age, but while in the rest of the world we might get to discover those dreams, and live them out, they can’t. The only way you can leave is if you have a medical reason approved by the Israeli government, or maybe if you get a scholarship to a foreign university. The psychology of that makes the normal progression of girlhood into womanhood very difficult.”
Looking at her photos, one thing that’s surreptitiously missing is boys and men. Dating is another tough area for teenage girls, she explains. Decorum states that you either have an arranged marriage, or invite a boy’s mother to meet your family and ask for your hand before starting a courting process. Before that, going to a restaurant or having coffee with a man who is not in your family could get you into serious trouble. “A lot of that has changed because of social media though,” explains Jaques. “They might meet in school, text, and then arrange a further meeting – but it would be short and they’d have to tell their parents they were doing something else. To be caught socialising with a man would be considered improper.”
By going back and forth to Gaza over five years, Jaques has been able not only to follow the girls as they grow up, but to chart the political and social shifts in the area over time. She says that on her most recent trip, the girls told her that life right now is the worst they’ve ever known, except for during active wartime. “There’s an electricity crisis, and that changes your whole routine – you can’t charge your phone, you can only do laundry once in a while. It’s taxing on you as a person to schedule your life around that,” Jaques explains. “Some of the middle-class families have generators but even those don't run all the time as it's far too expensive.”
On this trip, Jaques saw first-hand how the shortages, along with extreme heat, made it difficult for a lot of the girls she knows in Gaza to make it through the day. Her concern for the future is that if the political situation in the area worsens, the girls will lose hope: “Though they are the most resilient group of girls I've ever met, I do worry about them all the time.” However, if the project has taught her anything, she says, it’s just how strong people can be in the toughest situations for the longest duration of time. “These girls are tenacious, inspiring and determined, I hope the photos capture that.”