Defying Convention – A Gaza love story

Finding love amidst Gaza’s traditional society is a tricky business, and for those who defy the odds there’s a high price to pay.

Ehsan fell in love with his wife A’isha, a girl from theneighborhood, when he was 14 and she 13.

Eight years later they are still together, with Ehsan is about tograduate with a degree in pharmacology from Gaza’s Al AzharUniversity and A’isha studying journalism at the same school.

But after being together for years, the couple is still no closerto being able to expose their marriage.

“I am a religious person and well mannered, and so is A’isha,”Ehsan told The Media Line. “We know right from wrong. Whenever wesneak our the back door of the university so that we can walk in thestreet for five minutes, we feel guilty and ashamed.”

“Then I remind myself that it’s not wrong, even though ourparents don’t know,” said the black-haired young man withcautious honey eyes. “I have never even touched her hand, ordegraded her in any way, be it hurting her feelings or her dignity.How can I hurt a person I love more than myself? Love is not wrongeven though it’s considered ‘scandalous’ and unacceptable herein Gaza.”

A’isha and Ehsan’s status is what is known in Gaza as a‘conventional marriage’, a union recognized by law, but oftenwithout the approval of the religious authorities or the couple’sfamilies - an anomaly in a society in which religion, law andcultural legitimacy are so intricately weaved together.

“Conventional marriage, in its real meaning, is just like thereal legitimate marriage but lacks the court papers, appearance andapproval,” Dr Hassan Al Juju, Head of the Supreme Council of ShariaLaw in Gaza told The Media Line. “Instead of the sheikh, a lawyerdoes his usual work in the presence of the man and woman. The bride’sfather or legal guardian has to be present even if she is over 18.”

‘Conventional marriages’ occupy an uncertain space in Gazansociety and are frequently known to stir controversy. The debate onwhether they can be considered legal and culturally legitimate oftenappears irresolvable and the boundary between ‘conventionalmarriages’ and ‘secret marriages’ is often blurred.

In a society in which women’s ‘honor’ can impinge upon afamily’s reputation, secret marriages and love affairs are adangerous business, and often end in ‘honor killings’ – themurder by a family member of a female seen to have shamed the familyname.

“Conventional marriage is neither an equivalent nor analternative to secretive marriage, because secretive marriage istotally refused, forbidden and ‘haram’ (sinful) by the Sharia,”Dr Hassan said. “But conventional marriage has some bad sides justlike secretive marriage. Don’t forget that it can be a reasonbehind spreading sexually transmitted diseases. Mixed lineage is oneof the most dangerous problems coming out of conventional andsecretive marriage. It affects the children and their futuretremendously and can end up with them not having any evidence oftheir identity.”

Accepted or not, succeeding in conventional marriage is quite afeat.

“One day at university, we snuck out of the back door and headedto a lawyer I know,” Ehsan said, retelling the story of his weddingday. “I got the papers ready the day before and A’isha told herparents that the university needed some identification papers. After30 minutes with the lawyer we were married secretly. We went back tothe university as if nothing happened.”

“We are very cautious,” he continued. “Only A’isha’sbest friend and my best friend know about our secret and now youknow.”

Men began knocking on A’isha’s door to ask for her hand inmarriage when she was 16. Although she would always find a reason torefuse, she knows it won’t be long before her parents would startasking questions and force her to get married.

“I hope it never happens,” A’isha said through tears. “Iam trying my best to buy him time and I don’t know how my destinywill end once my family knows I am married.”

“I am sure my family will either kill me or lock me up forever,”she said. “I want to live my life and be happy. Is that too much toask?”

“I want to graduate, then work, then marry Ehsan and have kidsand lead a happy life,” she added. “Why is it so hard when itsounds so simple?"

Many say they got into a conventional marriage by chance.

Nur, 31, holds a prestigious position in a Gazan civil societyorganization. With a degree in social science from the IslamicUniversity, she has a tall fit frame, gray eyes, looks younger thanher age and is smartly dressed.

“Every one who meets me thinks I am very happy and that I amlucky to have such an open minded father that lets me work and notget married,” she told The Media Line. “But the truth is muchmore complicated and painful.”

“My father has been refusing every man that knocks on our doorfor over nine years,” Nur said. “I am tired of him taking mysalary and preventing me from marriage. Now I see education, work andindependence as a burden, not a privilege.”

“Eight months ago a man came to ask my father for my hand,”she said. “After two months my father said he wasn’t fit and thatI should forget about him but it was too late, we are in love.”

“I know it might sound too bold or maybe wrong but what could Ido?” she said. “I had to turn to Dr. Hassan and tell him to givemy father his last ultimatum or I will use conventional marriage tomarry this man. I just want to be happy and be a mother. Isn’t thatmy right?”

Though the consequences for those who chose traditional marriagecan be very severe, the desire to find love and happiness is oftentoo big a draw.

“You know what would happen if we revealed our marriage rightnow?” Ehsan said. “She would be killed and I would be eitherlocked up or have to go into hiding to keep myself alive. But I cannever let them separate us and I will do everything to fight them ifthey try. I am willing to take her and live somewhere else or hide oreven get out of Gaza.”

When reminded that Gaza is like a prison now, where no one can getin or out, Ehsan goes into a rage.

“I will get us out by any means,” he shouted. “Whatever Ihave to do.”

“But if they force her to marry someone else,” he said, “thenwe will either announce it and face the consequences or run away.”

All names in this article have been changed to protect  theidentities of those interviewed.