On the day we arrived in Gaza, I was sitting alone on the bus with a camera around my neck and a note pad and pen in my hands. A young Palestinian woman wearing a pink shayla and dark blue abaya sat down next to me and asked if I was a journalist. When I said no, she told me that she was a journalist, and then proceeded to prove it by asking a lot of questions. In the next few days I’d discover that Asma abu Namous was not only an independent young woman, her freedom doesn’t originate within herself because she’s free from the imposing stereotype of individualism.
Asma is the 22 year old host of a daily radio program called Banorama Al-Qudes. One evening after a full day together on the UN tour, she took me to the station in downtown Gaza City. After speaking with the production manger, she went into the recording studio where another program host allowed her to read the news for him so we could watch her perform. Without any preparation, Asma stepped into the booth, and even though I couldn’t understand a word of Arabic, I listened as the words left her voice so fluidly that I was sure it had to be a flawless broadcast.
If there was any doubt about her independence, it all vanished after we left the studio. We were standing on the side of a main street trying to flag down a taxi. Several private vehicles slowed down and each time the male driver spoke to her. She replied in Arabic as she waved them off. Smiling confidently she told me “when they see a Palestinian woman standing alone with a foreign man, they want to be sure I am ok. I tell them yes. They know to trust me.”
Observing Asma’s character was inspiring, even more so considering that her story includes the traumatic loss that so many in Gaza have to endure. Her fiancé, 24-year-old Yusuf Lubbard, was killed 17 days into the 22 day Israeli military offensive against Gaza. It was only a week before they were to be married. Sorrow and anger alternately played their part as she told me her tragic story. She wasn’t seeking sympathy though. Both emotions were soothed by an unmistakably mature seed of hope.
Everything about Asma was lean in regard to individual freedom. For one, she wasn’t seeking to be rid of the traditional Muslim clothing. To even mention this though belittles the very ideals of freedom and liberty. They are among the most complex undertakings in all of humanity. Appearance is the book cover we’re not supposed to prejudge each other by. At its worst, our freedom to choose how we dress delivers us as slaves to the invisible market economy.
Asma held tightly to a bolder vision for freedom. Her career choice wasn’t in search of fame or fortune. “I have a message for the world” she said. “I want to say to the world we want only to live in Gaza and Palestine in peace.” As simple as it sounds, Asma isn’t naïve. She gave her purpose sophisticated energy by explaining to me that too much of the world’s media isn’t free to be truthful in its reporting. She went into journalism to help spread Gaza’s truths beyond its borders.
Asma was one of several young women traveling with us as aides for UN. On the drive back to the Egyptian Border, 21 year old Fatima Farahat sat beside me and turned on her laptop computer to share some of her graphic designs. She spoke with the same kind of confidence that Asma did. It held sadness and hope side by side, as if each were necessary to define the very idea of optimism. Her artwork is a clear expression of the political realities in Gaza calmly woven into heartfelt dreams of peace and justice.
I heard the same voice of dedication from Nadine Fares at the Al Bait Assmamed Association Society, and from Asmaa Shaker at the South Female Journalist’s Forum in Rafah. At the Nuseirat Women’s Programme Center many different women had the opportunity to speak. Only once did I hear a plea to end the siege that was primarily personal. Everyone else addressed it from a societal viewpoint. Just as Asma and Fatima had been helping me understand, freedom and prosperity for them as individuals is secondary to the needs of their communities.
The impression they all left me with could easily be attributed with to my own sentimental idealism, except that Monia Mazigh confirmed my observations when she spoke during a meeting with government officials. She told them “as someone coming from a Muslim background” she was pleased to meet so many women who “were so educated, involved, and enthusiastic, and happy to be part of this society.”
That Gaza under Hamas’ rule would encourage independence for women defies the stereotype that our government wants us to accept. The larger question that’s bothered me though is how automatically we attempt to measure progress towards equality for women through the American experience. It seems we aren’t listening close enough to understand that in other cultures independence has vastly different roots.
We're too readily inclined to believe that the primary passage to all freedom is through the affirmation of individual rights. It’s part of our collective heritage. But we are prone to endorsing the false narrative of American exceptionalism if we project our vision of freedom onto other soil.
That’s not to say that our cherished Bill of Rights should be cast aside as a failed experiment. To find its true value though we have to seek understanding from the tension that is essential to all human dreams.
Individualism will always tug at our core sensibilities because we naturally imagine everything from our own experience. But its shadow leaves us susceptible to listening to ourselves first. Even as we reach out on behalf of others, we bring a collective surety in our approach that projects outwardly as a unique American narcissism.
What I heard in Asma’s and Fatima’s voices was a different kind of freedom. They asked the questions. They listened. It wasn’t to learn about American freedom and culture, but maybe to help free us from our own narratives so we may become true listeners to the world around us.