It wasn’t until I began to seriously write that I understood how privileged I am as a first-generation Palestinian American. I’ve been able to enjoy a kind of double-life: by day, a high school teacher, and by night—or more accurately, in the wee hours of morning—a writer. Not only do I enjoy financial stability, but it derives from a meaningful job and where I feel relatively safe. Later in my career, I pursued my MFA without qualm or tremor—except for the perpetual insecurity of never being as talented as my much younger classmates. And I thrived creatively and professionally because of that choice to return to graduate school.
As a U.S. citizen, I have many choices. I have many opportunities. Many beyond the conception of my immigrant parents, whose singular aspiration was to leave their occupied homeland, own a business, and raise a family without fear of martyred children. I’ve taken so much for granted. To be educated and to devote time to my art are not mere hierarchal, actualized experiences—these are my basic rights as a woman, as a human being. To be denied them is to deny my humanity.
So what of the native Palestinian woman? Her struggle for basic human rights will predominantly supersede the battle for gender equality. For how can she begin to fight for dignity and respect as a woman when she has been interminably denied dignity and respect as a human being? Though her patriarchal society inarguably circumvents her, it is the systematic racism and political oppression of Israel that thwarts her destiny. This uniquely distinguishes her from her counterparts around the world.
As a writer, I find any sort of artistic constraint imposed by an oppressive force unfathomable. That, of course, is the product—and a dangerous indulgence—of privilege. So when I came across an article about Nidaa Bidwan, a visual artist living in Deir al-Balah, Gaza, I was reminded how disparate my life is from my native sisters in Palestine. Bidwan is twice-displaced: she is unable to roam her city due to religious oppression by Hamas, and she cannot leave her city because of political oppression by Israel. A more poignant and tragic irony is none. It’s been more than a year that she’s left her 100-square foot room where she’s captured powerful photographs depicting her solitude. Bidwan concedes, “’You can say now there is another life for me…I feel I’m not living [in Gaza]. The project made new windows for me.’” Yet it is only a temporary escape for Bidwan for she is recognized only as a subject of military occupation and a second-class citizen by her immediate community. Her identity as an artist is ignored, neglected, undernourished, depleted, discouraged from fruition. It’s like grapes plucked recklessly from the vine before they’ve reached their full potential of flavor and design. Bidwan’s destiny is stunted as she remains locked up in her room while missiles fire back and forth above her head.
Yet, Bidwan still reveals the indomitable spirit of Palestinian women whose survival and caretaking of their families is all they might hope to achieve at the end of each day. That purpose is daily challenged with the punitive and inhumane demolition of homes.
According to a 2014 UN report, over 1200 homes were demolished in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. When something as basic as shelter is destroyed, the psychological effects on family are devastating. How can a wife and mother sustain a sense of stability and protection if her physical house is decimated? For these Palestinian women who are primary caretakers, this is even more unsettling for her and her children.
Consider how a typical, voluntary move from one house to another can produce a large amount of stress and anxiety. We experience mild to intense emotional triggers when we’ve lived in a home for some time. We remember the wooden floors across which we glided, chasing siblings and pets; our bedrooms where we sulked as teenagers; the kitchen where we infused the constant aroma of our mother’s cooking. Now imagine a Palestinian woman whose only home might have been mere cinderblock and sheet metal, torn cardboard for window panes, broken-legged chairs propped up with discarded matchboxes. Yet this is the only space she can control and it is obliterated.
Hurricanes, tornadoes, flash floods, and mudslides: these formidable forces have swept thousands of homes away across the globe. But, the Palestinian woman does not suffer from natural forces. She is maliciously attacked by the Israeli government and its U.S.-sponsored Caterpillar bulldozers. Unlike the victim of a tornado who must whisk away their loved ones to shelter before their house is carried away by its powerful winds, the Palestinian woman stands with her family and witnesses the destruction of her home, the agonizing minutes supplying more than enough time for her to look into the eye of the storm—a systematic racism.
That’s the daily reality of demolishment and razing of crop lands. It does not include the bombardment by Israeli forces of Gaza last summer which left more than 96,000 homes damaged or destroyed. In Israel’s campaign of collective punishment, hospitals and shelters were also targeted. While illegal settlements continue to be built, Palestinian homes are destroyed and thousands of building permits denied.
When the Palestinian woman overcomes issues of shelter, she is faced with other challenges. Palestinian women have higher rates of morbidity and mortality compared to other groups. Those who are confined to regions such as the Gaza Strip and the “Seam Zone” (the area between the Green Line and Wall barrier) do not have adequate access or none at all. Welfare departments and services within Israel are difficult to access or completely denied them. Furthermore, violence against Palestinian women is more prevalent than among Israeli women, yet even legal Palestinian citizens of Israel are often neglected in terms of proper recourse. In cases of domestic violence, these women are doubly wronged by their patriarchal society and the failure of police and judicial interventions from which Israeli Jewish women benefit. The blockade of Gaza also reveals a higher level of domestic violence against women as a result of tensions within a community that already discriminates against them. And only one crisis center exists in that pressure-cooker region.
I can continue to rattle off facts and reports and studies conducted by humanitarian NGOs and UN-delegations, but the picture of strife that Palestinian women—third and fourth-generations now—endure is clear. Many of the physical and psychological effects can be measured and presented to the world. What we’ll never be able to surmise is all that these women might have accomplished and contributed if the shackles of Israel and patriarchal oppression were busted from their limbs. How many Nidaa Bidwans confine themselves to their rooms with the hope that someone might enter and spread word of their existence and all they create? How many aspirations of being a writer, nurse, economist, political leader, teacher, scientist, and engineer have been snuffed out?
My parents’ immigration provided me with more than survival. I can teach, write, perform, travel, and follow any creative whim. I hope I’ll never squander a moment in pursuit of my most basic human rights.
I’ll leave you with this poem by Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis which poignantly captures the still inextinguishable spirit of my native sisters:
A Palestinian woman/
made of stone, water, and light/
sustains like the earth’s oceans and trees/
withstanding abuse and being taken for granted.
–“Her Heart is a Rose Petal and her Skin is Granite”
Sahar Mustafah is a Palestinian American writer, editor, and teacher from Chicago. HerSahar’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Story, Great Lakes Review, Word Riot, Flyleaf, Hypertext Magazine, Mizna, Hair Trigger, and others. She earned her MFA at Columbia College, where she completed a short story collection. She is a member of Voices of Protest, a collaboration of diverse writers and artists sponsored by the Guild Literary Complex of Chicago. She currently serves on the board of Radius of Arab American Writers, and she is co-founder of Bird’s Thumb, an online literary journal devoted to publishing new and emerging voices www.birdsthumb.org.
 Majd Al Waheidi, “A Gaza Artist Creates 100 Square Feet of Beauty, and She’s Not Budging.” The New York Times, Feb. 27, 2015.
 UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
 Khatib, M. (2012). Health of Arab Women in Israel – Policy Paper. The Galilee Society et al.: Israel.