blogger and freelancer, Gaza
Defying expectations to report on human rights in Gaza
In 2007, Asmaa al-Ghoul wrote an article that changed her life. That was the year she published a scathing critique of Palestinian ruling authorities in a Gaza newspaper. The story would have been controversial by itself, but was made more so by the fact that al-Ghoul penned it in the form of a critical letter to her uncle, a senior military leader for Gaza ruling faction Hamas. Titled “Dear Uncle, Is This the Homeland We Want?” the letter shared memories of al-Ghoul’s uncle, with whom she had been raised. She sharply criticized him for abetting the oppression of Gaza by forcing Hamas’ Islamic views on the population. She recalled him using the family home to interrogate and beat members of political group Fatah.
With the article, al-Ghoul found her voice as a human rights and social issues reporter. She also drew the ire of her uncle, who disowned her and threatened to kill her. Al-Ghoul was studying journalism in South Korea at the time of her story’s publication, but menacing phone messages were left at the home of her father. Hamas authorities told her she could not return to Gaza. Some in al-Ghoul’s family called her, begging her to quit writing and apologize.
Al-Ghoul was determined not to stop her work. She went to Egypt for a few months after Korea and then returned to Gaza, where she began to write again.
She reported on the escalating unrest between Hamas and Fatah. She chronicled the 2008-09 Israeli bombardment of Gaza, which left as many as 1,400 Palestinians dead and tens of thousands homeless. She went into the hardest-hit areas there, bearing witness to the civilian casualties, many of them children, caused by incessant missile attacks. Al-Ghoul has covered the unpunished murders of young girls for family “honor”, lack of access to education for women and the dwindling freedoms of Gazan people under Hamas. She turns an equally critical eye on each of her subjects, which means she draws criticism from all sides.
Al-Ghoul said her life and career have, to some extent, been defined by clashes with authority. She said that even as a child, she wanted to write about the human condition. “I always had something inside me like…like I wanted to tell the people something,” she said. “The dream I had to tell people what I believed became bigger and bigger,” she said. But as the risk increased, that dream became “a hard thing to follow.”
Since her first article until the present, al-Ghoul’s work has never been easy. In early 2011, she was beaten while covering a solidarity gathering between Palestinians and Egyptians. Two months later, she was one of seven journalists assaulted and tortured by Hamas security forces while reporting on rallies calling for Hamas to reconcile with Fatah. She regularly receives violent and explicit threats against her own life and that of her young son.
Her recent work has been motivated by what she views as a war on the culture of Gaza. She criticizes factions in and out of the region for its decline. Fiercely secular, al-Ghoul speaks about Hamas’ attempted radicalization of social values with alarm. “I came back to my family home and they wanted me to wear a hijab and they wanted me to not talk with the men. Young men, like me,” she explains. “I wanted to be natural. And they wanted to put me in five rooms, because they think this is what God says.” As a freelance journalist, al-Ghoul contributes regularly to Al-Ayyam newspaper, a popular Palestinian daily. She reports for other entities as well, but al-Ghoul considers digital media to be her best tool in speaking out about society and corruption. With traditional media, she said, “there is always an editor telling me what I should write and what I should not write. With blogging, I found myself more and more.”
Al-Ghoul uses her blog to tell stories about daily life in Gaza, including the scrutiny she faces as a journalist and the indignities she suffers as a woman. She said social media have great potential “to become part of the conversation about rights” in Palestine. Al-Ghoul said she keeps reporting because she is a part of the struggle of all people in Gaza – to have a better life, to have basic human rights…“when you cover these issues, you are struggling in the streets with the other people,” she said.
From her childhood in Rafah, a city south of Gaza, reading books and writing poems “about love and freedom” to the publication of her first story at 17 years old, al-Ghoul has carved out a unique path for herself as a defender of peace in a place of conflict; as an advocate of openness where there is an endless war for control.
The desire to speak out for freedom is “like a sickness,” al-Ghoul said. “A disease I will have all my life, but I love it.”
Asmaa al-Ghoul is the first Palestinian winner of the Courage in Journalism Award.