Women prisoners tell their stories in "Suspended Lives"

22 July 2011

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The Suspended Lives installation at Ramallah’s Al Mahatta Gallery profiled ten former women prisoners.

(Giorgio Algeri)

Thirty-six large photographs depicting former Palestinian women prisoners and their families were hung in Ramallah’s Al Mahatta Gallery earlier this month, accompanied by the photographed subjects’ words inked in Arabic on the gallery’s steel-grey walls. The recorded voices of the former prisoners, interspersed with a haunting melody played on a cello, echoed throughout the small, subterranean gallery.

Suspended Lives, a photography exhibition that profiles ten women and their incarceration in Israeli prisons, is part of the UN Women’s project “Palestinian Female Prisoners in Israeli Prison,” which aims to uphold and advocate for the rights of Palestinian female prisoners.

UN Women, short for the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, was formed in July 2010. The body merges four previously separate arms of the UN that promoted gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Photographed by Italian artist Ventura Formicone, each of the ten profiles in the exhibition includes a large portrait that allows the viewer to gaze directly into the prisoner’s eyes or, in some cases, the eyes of her family member.

The ten women were willing to open up to Formicone and the employees of UN Women and the various organizations they partnered with, including Addameer, the Palestinian Counseling Centre and the Mandela Institute for Human Rights.

For visitors who do not speak Arabic, the exhibition provides a program with the prisoners’ and their families’ stories — in their own words — translated into English.

“I was struck that these people were full of humanity, strength and pride; and I wanted the audience to face these women and their stories,” Formicone told The Electronic Intifada.

The other photos accompanying each solemn portrait powerfully evoke the broader community into which these women are released and from which they were taken.

Mariam Abu Daqa was arrested when she was 16 years old on charges of affiliation with the Guevara Group, the resistance arm of the leftist party the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Now 59, her sober, contemporary portrait hangs next to a photograph of a framed image of Abu Daqa in her youth, laughing exuberantly with a friend.

Like many prisoners, Daqa’s is a story of exile. Israel deported her to Jordan after she completed her two year sentence. “When I came back [to Gaza] after thirty years, I found my father and sister dead and everything changed,” she says in her testimony.

10,000 women arrested

According to a booklet published by UN Women for the Suspended Lives exhibition, approximately 10,000 Palestinian women have been arrested by Israel since 1967 (“Suspended Lives: Palestinian female prisoners in Israeli prisons” [PDF]).

Suspended Lives highlights that women are a primary and fundamental element of the familial and social fabric of any society and therefore female incarceration and torture create a particular loss to their mothers, daughters, husbands and sisters.

Ibraheem, the husband of Ibtissam Essawi, who was sentenced to 15 years in 2001 after stabbing an Israeli security guard after he demanded she take off her headscarf, explains in his testimony: “I was mother and father for my six children from that point on.”

A facet of female incarceration unflinchingly portrayed in the exhibition is the difficulty of reintegration that Palestinian women encounter upon release. Depicting the women’s absence from any semblance of a normal life after prison, the exhibit reveals the personally harrowing experiences that these women confront upon release and highlights the difference in social attitudes to male versus female prisoners.

“Female prisoners are not given the same status as male prisoners, who are treated as heroes when they are released. There is a lot of stigma and assumptions are made,” Alia El-Yassir, the head of office of UN Women and principle coordinator of the project, told The Electronic Intifada.

“Families tend to react by isolating the former prisoners,” El-Yassir said.

For three of the prisoners, Formicone’s portrait was of family members instead of the prisoners themselves — Ibraheem Essawi being one of them. “I thought it was a way to talk about the experience of the prison from the angle of the family,” Formicone said.

Dozens of women currently in Israeli prison

Explaining that the project is directed at both an international audience and Palestinian society itself, El-Yassir hopes the exhibition, which premiered in Madrid, Spain last February, will continue to travel around the world, but as of yet there are no upcoming exhibitions.

Today, 36 Palestinian female prisoners remain in Israeli jails. They are denied a spectrum of human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to all of which Israel is a party.

Alongside the portrait of Fatma al-Ziq, who wears a jet-black hijab or headscarf that drapes gracefully over her shoulders, are five other photographs dedicated to her story. Two show al-Ziq with her son Yousef, to whom she gave birth in prison, gazing out over Gaza City from a rooftop.

Speaking about the prison doctor who oversaw her birth, al-Ziq says in a recording played in the installation: “She left me for four continuous hours. She insulted me at every occasion.”

Nevertheless, al-Ziq remembers the moment Yousef was born, and the redemption she experienced during the brief instant she held him. “They took him away from me and immediately cuffed my hand and legs to the bed. My legs were shackled for three days.”

An additional egregious element of detention of Palestinians in Israeli prisons is that all three Israeli facilities that hold Palestinian female prisoners are located in Israel. This is in direct contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits accused persons from being detained outside of their occupied territory.

In the case of Palestinians inside the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, families must face the unsparing restrictions of movement placed on Palestinians that make travel to Israel arduous, if not impossible. Regardless of restrictions to movement, in many cases Israel bars visits from certain members of the prisoner’s family — and in the case of Gaza, family members are never given access.

Al-Ziq says in her testimony: “Death is death but separation is harder because you’re alive and not allowed to see each other.”

Of the six photographs dedicated to al-Ziq, three depict her husband and sons one year before her release. Notably, there are no photographs depicting the family’s reunion — a poignant intimation of the adversity and tragic isolation women face after upon their release.

Mohammad Amous, one of the founders of Al Mahatta Gallery, told The Electronic Intifada that the reception to the exhibit has been exceptional. “It’s an extraordinary event. For the first time, people from all different sectors of society have come to this exhibit. This is the most deep and emotionally charged exhibit we have had.”

There are, of course, countless other women with similar but distinct experiences, whose untold stories can be glimpsed through the window these photographs provide.

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in the West Bank. She can be reached at charlottesilver A T gmail D O T com.