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