20 moving photos reveal the secret lives of women growing up in Gaza — one of the most contested pieces of land in the world

  • Photojournalist Monique Jaques first visited the Gaza Strip in 2012 to document Operation Pillar of Defence – one of many conflagrations between Israel and the military wing of Hamas.
  • While there, Jaques was struck by the story the media wasn’t telling – that of the everyday lives of Palestinians living in Gaza.
  • Jaques befriended many Palestinian women in Gaza and documented their lives over the next five years to show an untold perspective on the conflict.
  • Her photos have been collected in a book, called Gaza Girls, released earlier this year.

Photojournalist Monique Jaques first visited the Gaza Strip to document Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012, one of the many conflagrations between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza.

While there, she was struck by the dissonance between what she saw on the ground in the blockaded territory versus what was shown and reported in the media.

“Every image I saw was extremely violent and only had men in them. You never saw a woman and, if you did, she would most likely be covered head to toe,” Jaques told Business Insider. “That image wasn’t matching up with the image I saw and the people I met.”

That dissonance, and a budding friendship with her Palestinian translator, convinced her that there was a deep, untold story in the contested area. She knew that she had to tell the story of daily life of Palestinians, and women in particular, after the fighting stopped.

Over the course of five years, Jaques returned again and again to speak with Palestinian women in Gaza and document their lives. Her commitment to telling their story allowed her to capture “stolen moments” and show a side of life in the territory rarely seen.

The work has now been collected in a book, called Gaza Girls, which was published earlier this year.

Jaques first began documenting the women of Gaza after befriending her translator during her assignment covering Operation Pillar of Defence. The woman, a Palestinian, told her that she wanted to introduce Jaques to “a world no one is talking about.”

Girls watch the sunset at the harbour in Gaza City. While living in Gaza is undeniably tough, being a woman there is harder. Courtesy of Monique Jacques

Though photographing women was difficult due to Gaza’s conservative culture, Jaques said that she was aided by a network of Palestinian women who understood the importance of telling the human-side of Gaza. Those women helped Jaques build relationships that lasted years.

The 2017 class of Palestine University. Courtesy of Monique Jacques

Jaques said it helped that she wasn’t on assignment. She was able to spend as much time as she needed to build relationships and gain trust. Jaques ended up spending five years visiting Gaza, returning for weeks at a time every few months.

A girl shows off her Palestinian themed nails after a recent bombing campaign. Courtesy of Monique Jacques

Jaques has spent much of her career photographing conflicts in the Middle East. She said that media coverage of the Israel-Gaza conflict was only interested in portraying “an aggressive view of suffering.” While she does not deny that reality, she wanted to provide a chance for Palestinian women to tell their own story. “I wanted to give them an avenue to talk about what they were going through in their own voices,” she said.

Hours after a ceasefire was declared between Hamas and Israel, the people of Gaza City begin to rebuild. Shops open and families go out to witness the damage incurred by the recent strikes. Courtesy of Monique Jacques

The first woman Jaques befriended was Doaa Abu Abdo, her translator during her initial assignment. Doaa helped Jaques meet women who were happy to talk about their day-to-day lives. Bedrooms and private cars are one of the few places unmarried girls can sing and dance without being judged by the public, or their own families.

Doaa in a friend’s bedroom. Courtesy of Monique Jacques

Life in Gaza can be difficult and uncertain. Jaques was with Doaa when she called her mother in Tel Aviv, Israel during a blackout. Many hospitals in Gaza cannot care for severely sick or wounded people and they are transferred to hospitals in Israel. Her mother was escorting her grandson whose pancreas had burst.


When girls are young in Gaza, they are free to do just about anything they want, according to Jaques, including play sports and talk to boys. But when they turn 16, family pressures force them to retreat to the home. “It’s a very confusing time for them,” she said.

Girls play football in the Northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiyah. Courtesy of Monique Jacques

Sabah Abu Ghanem and her sister were the only female surfers in Gaza. While their family was more liberal than others in letting the girls surf, when the two came of age, they were told to stop.

For many Gazans the sea is the only place they can be without being reminded of their isolation. Female Surfer, Sabah Abu Ghanem, 14, and her sister surf early in the morning outside of Gaza city. The sisters place first in many competitions inside the strip, but have never left the Gaza Strip to compete. Courtesy of Monique Jacques

The home is the main place where women hang out. “Young girls and mothers will visit another’s home for tea and to catch up on the latest news. Thousands of stories and tales are told and passed down for generations in this fashion,” Jaques wrote in Gaza Girls.


One of the women that Jaques spent the most time with was Yara. She began photographing her when she was 9 years old. “I was able to leave [Gaza], but every time I came back she was a very different girl,” she said.

Yara and her brother waiting for their father to return with schwarma as an evening treat after a recent conflict ended. Courtesy of Monique Jacques

Jaques spent a lot of time driving around Gaza, hanging out at the beach, and talking during all-night “sleepovers” with the girls. “I’d really like people to think of Gaza as a place and not a conflict,” Jaques said. “There are women and dreams there. Everything exists together with the electricity shortage and the occupation.”

Yara and her friends prepare a dance number during a blackout. Fuel is scarce in Gaza and many families only receive six to eight hours of electricity a day. Courtesy of Monique Jacques

Jaques said she became a de-facto “therapist” for many of the women. Because she was a foreigner, the women were more comfortable telling her their secret desires, fears, and hopes.

At a salon in Gaza City women come to get their hair, nails, and makeup done before weddings. In many families, a woman is not allowed to be seen without a veil by a man outside of her family, so beauty salons are for women only. Courtesy of Monique Jacques

“One time, a girl turned to me and said I just want to go somewhere else for one day where no one knows me and I can be myself,” said Jaques. “It is so difficult in a place like Gaza because everyone knows you and you are related to half the people.”

A phone shaped like lips and a prayer rug sit in the corner during a blackout. Courtesy of Monique Jacques

Still, many of the women go on to become engineers, doctors, or other professionals thanks to the territory’s school system.

Medical students from Islamic University on break in the Maternity Ward of Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza. Courtesy of Monique Jacques

Most of the women Jaques befriended expressed wanting to leave Gaza, a feeling no doubt magnified because most never will. But most also wanted to return home. “To say to a young girl, you can’t do this, just makes you want to do it more … They want to know what Paris is like,” she said.

Madleen Koolab takes Gazans out for rides on Thursday nights, a popular night for families. Madleen owns the boat and uses it to fish during the week. Courtesy of Monique Jacques

The story of Palestinian women in Gaza, Jaques said, appeared to be about a “struggle for agency while growing up in a place where you can’t make your own decisions.”

Manequins show off available clothing in a shop near the main street of Gaza. Courtesy of Monique Jacques

But the women persist and many pursue their dreams. While few female singers remain in Gaza as families and local government look down on the practice, Hadeel Fawzy Abushar performs in concerts promoting peace. She started when she was 12, as all of her sisters are singers.

Hadeel Fawzy Abushar, 25, records a song in a studio in Gaza City. Courtesy of Monique Jacques

While many of the stories Jaques heard were specific to a conservative place like Gaza, they were also universal. Stories of friendships gone sour, unrequited love, and unhappy marriages. To help her subjects tell their stories, Jaques included extensive diary entries from the women in Gaza Girls.

Nisreen Shawa, a worker for the Palestinian Medical Relief Foundation at the Hamza Bin Abd- el Muttalib School where they do art therapy and exercises with girls after the recent bombings. Courtesy of Monique Jacques

But of course, the reality of living in a place like Gaza is ever present. To critics who might say that Jaques is “whitewashing” the conflict in Gaza, she said that her goal is to add to the discussion, not deny the truth of the many other aspects of coverage out there.

A woman walks by a mural discouraging domestic violence outside of Al-Shifa hospital. According to a 2012 study, some 37% of women are subjected to domestic violence by their husbands. Courtesy of Monique Jacques