GAZA CITY: Najwa Abu Amra cries inside a Gaza jail as she explains how she got here. Struggling to care for two sons and a drug-addicted husband, she agreed to sleep with a man for about 50 dollars.
A Palestinian Hamas policewoman unlocks a door at a women’s prison run by Hamas in Gaza City on December 9, 2010. The prison consists of two rooms that house 19 women, some doing time for “moral” crime, and a handful of children.
She had resisted prostitution in the past, but she was getting desperate.
“My husband isn’t normal, he was telling me to sleep with men because they would give him money,” She said. “He did what he liked and he didn’t give me anything. I didn’t know what to do”.
Her husband showed no interest in caring for their two boys, one aged nine, the other just three. When she walked out, trying to prod him into better behaviour, he married a second wife.
“I had two sons, one of them is deaf, I didn’t have a choice,” she explains as the other women prisoners look on, some of them clutching their own children.
Out of desperation, she dialed the number of a man she had met months earlier, and agreed to sleep with him for 200 shekels (54 dollars or 41 euros).
Not long afterwards, Abu Amra was arrested on suspicion of immoral behaviour.
She was hauled before a judge and ordered to attend 30 days of pre-trial detention at the Training and Reform Centre for Women, Gaza’s only prison for women.
The facility is run by Hamas, which has been in control of the Gaza Strip since 2007. The group won legislative elections in 2006, and a year later seized control of the coastal enclave after deadly confrontations with rival Fatah.
Since coming to power, the Islamist group has sought to bolster Gaza’s conservative religious mores, although it has rescinded some controversial measures, including one banning women from publicly smoking the water pipe.
The prison, such as it is, consists of two rooms that house 19 women and a handful of children. The rest of the building, which is still under construction, houses a men’s prison and administration offices.
Inside one of the rooms, 11 women sit on foam cushions and thick rugs, their thin blankets piled in a corner. One nurses a child in the dimly-lit room, which has only one tiny window letting in very little light.
In the other, eight women sit chatting with their female prison guard, Umm Ahmed, who treats them with a mixture of sympathy and revulsion.
‘Moral’ crimes are rarely sentenced
Abu Amra’s two boys are still with her husband, but another woman, a tired and scared-looking prisoner who refuses to give her name, is rocking her newborn son in her arms.
He was born just three days earlier and doesn’t yet have a name. His mother was transferred to a hospital for the birth then returned to jail shortly after. His father is a man she slept with for money, Umm Ahmed says. But the new mother claims otherwise, describing the man as her husband.
She says her family arranged the marriage while she was in jail, hoping it would be enough to get her out and minimise some of the public disgrace they face. Umm Ahmed says the family has done no such thing.
It is a common solution, said Nasser Deeb Suliman, director of prison security, especially when the man in the question is someone the family knows.
“If it was with a neighbour or a friend, usually the family will decide to marry them, and then the woman can be released,” he said.
The woman’s sister, who also refused to give her name, is in a similar situation. She is heavily pregnant and due to give birth this month, after spending almost half of her pregnancy in prison.
Suliman said the women are divided between the two rooms according to the severity of their crimes, but 21-year-old Tahrir, who was convicted of murder, is in the same room as women accused of prostitution and pick pocketing.
In the next room sits Rihab, a quiet and pale 34-year-old whose arms are covered in scars from cutting herself. She talks openly but without pride about how she ended up in prison.
She didn’t need money; she had a job at a local hospital. Her crime was to choose to sleep with two men, both of whom ended up in prison as well.
“I did it, I’m not going to lie, I did it twice,” she said. Her family was furious at first, but her father has forgiven her.
“He told the neighbours I’m in Egypt, he’s going to get a lawyer for me,” she said. The two men have already been released, after hiring attorneys to argue their cases.
Those accused of “moral” crimes are rarely sentenced, Suliman says.
Instead, a judge extends their 30-day detention period several times, releasing them between four and eight months later – less if a woman gets married, and more if she is a repeat offender.
Some women are more reluctant than Rihab to admit why they are in jail.
Kholud, 18, and her mother, who declines to give her name, have been in prison for two months, and say they were jailed over a family dispute.
Umm Ahmed openly contradicts them, but they refuse to change their story.
Outside the cell, the guard takes a visitor aside, her face sad but her voice filled with disgust as she describes the women as part of a brothel.
“The whole family was rotten. They were all involved. The father was in charge. The guy who was with the daughter was also with the mother,” she says.
“Don’t believe everything they say.”
Tags: Abu Amra, Arrested, behaviour, claims, crime, Gaza City, Gaza's fallen women: doing time for 'moral' crime, Hospital, involved, Islamist group, jail, Palestinian Hamas policewoman, pick pocketing, prostitution, Struggling