Sunday, June 27, 2010

Jailed for her own protection


Since my last blog post, I published one piece in The Nation entitled “Rachel Corrie Revisited” and another in Global Post entitled “Dodging bullets in Gaza’s no-go zone.” I also was interviewed in a monthly conference call organized by Jewish Fast for Gaza. I’m currently working on a two magazine feature stories—one about a lady named Ilham who is jailed by Hamas for her own protection and another about women's rights under Hamas rule.

This week, I interviewed women imprisoned for adultery or prostitution. In all of Gaza, there are only 12 such women, and they reside together in an approximately 15-foot by 15-foot cell at Gaza City’s Al-Ansar prison. (The men are housed in a separate area.) The cell is overseen by a female warden and contains foam mattresses, a private bathroom, piles of clothing, multiple copies of the Quran, and materials for making handicrafts. While prostitutes would be stoned to death in some purportedly Islamic countries, in Gaza they are “rehabilitated,” jailed for six months or less, and never beaten by the government, according to Hamas officials.

The subject of one of my articles, 25-year-old Ilham, is pictured above on a rooftop “courtyard” where the female prisoners enjoy fresh air for a few hours per week. Ilham looks much young than her 25 years and speaks with wit and defiance that set her apart from the other female prisoners. Ilham boldly offered to have me photograph her face, but the guards asked that I photograph her from behind.

Ilham's story is among the most unusual that the prison officials say they've ever seen. Ilham told me she was “forced” to marry at age 14 to a “sick man whose back looked like a soccer ball.” At age 23, she divorced with no children. Ilham secretly shared regular coffee dates and phone chats with her friend’s brother, a university student named Shadi, and the two planned to marry. When Shadi’s father refused to accept the marriage, Shadi stole money from him to buy Ilham a wedding ring. In his rage, Shadi’s father went to the police and had his son arrested and jailed for theft.

At that point, Ilham and Shadi say they devised an audacious plan: they lied to a judge that that they’d had sexual relations in order to force their families to accept a marriage out of shame. (By Palestinian law, the fathers or father figures from both families must sanction the marriage. When two unmarried people are suspected of having slept together, marriage is sometimes proposed as a means to “restore” the girl’s honor.) However, Ilham's family did not accept a marriage, and the judge ordered both Shadi and Ilham to stand trial for adultery.

While Ilham is now free to leave the prison, her father has threatened to have her killed, and Hamas authorities are attempting to mediate a solution that saves Ilham’s life. In the meantime, the trial has been delayed for 45 days. Ilham privately asked me to tell Shadi, who I interviewed separately at the same prison, that she was “staying strong” and wouldn’t back down. “I’m not afraid,” she said. “I’m not afraid of my cousins, brothers and relatives. I don’t care what they think. I’m only afraid from my God. I was weak before. I was very weak. I couldn’t control anything in my life. Shadi helped me be strong….I love Shadi more than the whole world.”

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