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“I was forced to tear cloth from a tent when I got my period”: The war that humiliated women

“I was forced to tear cloth from a tent when I got my period”: The war that humiliated women

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"قطّعت من قماش الخيمة لما إجتني"... عن الحرب التي أذلّتنا

Life took an unexpected turn for 33-year-old Doha Ahmed, after the Israeli war on Gaza uprooted her from her once-secure life, home, and family. She now lives as a displaced person in one of the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) schools at the Nuseirat camp in central Gaza. Doha struggles with the lack of basic necessities, and faces numerous challenges, particularly those related to her needs as a woman.

My husband was martyred, leaving me with our four daughters

Doha was forced to flee her residential neighborhood, the Al-Shati refugee camp west of Gaza City, under a barrage of rockets. She escaped death but became displaced, forced to sleep in a classroom with her four daughters, the oldest of which is 14 years old. They share this tight space with ten other families.

The lack of protection, healthcare, and privacy at the displacement center heightened Doha's feelings of anxiety and fear. She informs Raseef22, “I have become homeless; the living conditions here are extremely difficult, and I must adapt to sharing a classroom with neighbors. Privacy is completely non-existent; we sleep on a single mattress provided by the UNRWA, and I cannot remove my veil. Sleep is a rare luxury, and there's no water or food. I am deprived of any semblance of personal hygiene. My husband was martyred, leaving me to endure the hardships of war and care for my daughters alone.”

Queues for the bathroom

Doha's plight as a displaced person is compounded by her role as the sole caregiver to her daughters. She strives to protect the privacy of her daughters as much as possible, especially when they need to use the bathroom or shower, which has become incredibly challenging to attain. The girls and their mother are forced to wait in line for their turn, causing great embarrassment and shame. Sometimes, they refrain from doing so, leading to urinary problems.

“I've become homeless; living conditions are really tough. Privacy is non-existent. Sleep is a rare luxury, and there's no water or food, or any semblance of personal hygiene. My husband was martyred, leaving me to the hardships of war with my four daughters”

Their suffering continues. Even within the classroom, their freedom is restricted, as they take turns sleeping and waking up. Doha explains, “I put fabric barriers between me and other families only when I need to change my clothes. If everyone is present, we keep our clothes on for a longer period.” She does not feel safe.

Despite Israeli forces ordering residents in the northern and central areas of Gaza to evacuate south, which they have deemed safe, the bombing continues there as well. Most families in Gaza have forcibly fled their homes to seek refuge in UNRWA facilities, tents near hospitals, relatives' homes, or even sleep on the streets due to overcrowding. Women pay a greater price, as their hygiene needs require greater privacy.

In the classroom Doha now calls home, she and the other women must share in cooking, laundry, sleeping, and even changing children's diapers. Privacy is almost nonexistent.

I change my clothes in hiding

Nesreen Tayseer, 20 years old, shares the same classroom as Doha Ahmed and her daughters. Nesreen lives in denial of her situation, after her home in Beit Hanoun, north Gaza, was flattened by occupation bombing.

Through tears, she tells Raseef22, “We endured the lack of food, water, and the terror of the bombings, but the conditions of our displacement are too harsh for me to bear, especially since women here are used to conservative environments.”

She laments having to leave the home where she enjoyed complete privacy. Here, she is deprived of ablution for prayer, which would require her to leave the classroom and get water from the crowded schoolyard. Sometimes she even refrains from drinking water or eating to avoid having to go to the bathroom.

“I've forgotten the shape of my body” – Nesreen, a 20-year-old displaced woman

She changes her underwear in hiding. When she washes them, she waits for hours until there aren't many people around to hang them on the laundry lines between the classrooms. She has not brushed her hair since the start of the war. She says, “I've forgotten the shape of my body.”

The UNRWA reported that the number of displaced individuals in Gaza has reached 1.6 million, half of whom are women.

According to the agency, approximately 830,000 displaced individuals currently reside in 154 of its facilities, throughout the different governorates in Gaza. These people have fled airstrikes, ground invasions, and Israeli shelling on their homes and lives to make it to the displacement camps.

Safaa is shocked by her daily reality, and the loss of her most basic right: the right to privacy as a woman. “I tore cloth from a tent to use as a makeshift pad when I got my period”, compromising both her personal hygiene and health

"I wished the ground would open up and swallow me"

With these words, Safaa described the moment she began to menstruate during her displacement. She was staying in a tent near the Al-Aqsa Hospital in central Gaza after her house in Rimal was bombed.

For most women in the besieged strip, the mere idea of menstruation is a nightmare and yet another catastrophe compounded onto their suffering. There is a lack of sanitary pads, the proper facilities for self-care, and a lack of bathrooms. Some women resorted to delaying their menstrual cycle via contraceptive pills.

Safaa was unprepared for this reality; she forgot to pack sanitary pads from home, as she was too focused on finding her identification papers. Period stains on her clothes led to huge embarrassment, and she was unable to find a place to change.

She attempted to transform pieces of tattered cloth, intended as a barrier between tents, into a makeshift sanitary pad, “I tore cloth from the tent fabric when my period began,” compromising her personal hygiene.

Safaa is still shocked by her daily reality, and by the loss of her most basic right: that of privacy as a woman.

Safaa was unprepared for life as a displaced woman; she was too focused on finding her identification papers that she forgot to pack sanitary pads, resulting in major discomfort after stains appeared on her clothes, and she couldn't find a place to change

Reham Husniya, a social researcher, explained to Raseef22, “Women in Gaza are deprived of their most basic rights, such as maintaining their privacy, especially when going to the bathrooms. There is also a lack of sanitary facilities and discomfort while bathing. Some even fear being assaulted, and are afraid of reporting or even discussing the issue, given the conditions of the war and the fear of scandal or potential family problems in the areas of displacement.”

She added that the life of displacement has serious physical and psychological consequences for women, as they "do not have access to personal hygiene conditions and health care, which negatively impacts a woman's interactions with her relatives, family, husband, and children."

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