Shahd Abusalama in conversation

Palestinian Activism, Western Feminism and Borders: in conversation with Sara Jafari

Interview, Issue Two

Shahd Abusalama is a Palestinian feminist writer, activist, artist and journalist born and raised in Jabalia Refugee Camp, Gaza, and currently based in London. Shahd uses her passion for writing and artivism to campaign for justice for Palestine, and refugee rights. Her blog, ‘Palestine from My Eyes’ is widely read and was published as a book.

Shahd spoke to Sara Jafari about activism, misconceptions, and her experience of border crossings for the borders issue.

Sara: Could you tell me a bit about your activism and what you do?

Shahd: I’m a campaigner for BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) and refugee rights. I was born in Jabalia refugee camp in Northern Gaza, and activism has been part of my life ever since I was a child. When I was engaging in activism, it was not framed as such. It was a way of life.

Sara: Lots of people try to be conscious, or care about certain causes, but what advice do you have for people that want to go beyond caring to actually being proactive?

Shahd: They need to be well educated about the issues. I have notice people to be driven by emotions, but without much knowledge. You cannot just advocate for a cause without knowing the basics at the very least. Passion needs to be there, as well as commitment. Acknowledge your privilege, and from that point try and help those who are not privileged, who are subject to oppression. It is so important to work collaboratively. Working alone is never as effective as working with a collective.

Sara: Western feminism is something that gets talked about a lot, which to me implies a mentality of an ‘us’ [the liberated and civilised], and ‘them’ [the oppressed, closed minded and traditional]. What are your thoughts on this?

Shahd: There’s this discourse of the ‘saviour’ sweeping in to ‘save’ women who may not feel oppressed. I’m thinking now of the famous scholar, Leila Bu-Lughod: she wrote Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? It speaks so much about these issues, which in many ways are a new colonial construct. Women’s movements around the world are not homogenous, but there should be awareness, and respect of difference. And intersectionality has to be there. 

Photography by Stella Malfilâtre

”I always say I am a Palestinian woman,  no more or less. And some people assume that I am a Muslim, which for me is an indication of ignorance, because they are presuming that all Palestinians are Muslims.

We have Christians in Palestine, we also have a minority of Jews. And I think as a political activist it is very important to clarify that Palestinians are fighting an anti-colonial struggle, and our fight for justice shouldn’t be defined in religious terms.“

Sara: Within this context, have you found that conversations about the veil or hijab dominates the conversation about Muslim women? I know the editors of Syrup Magazine met you at an event discussing this issue.

The hijabi campaigning for women’s rights was talking about the rising Islamophobia that is mainly targeting Muslim women and hijabi women. She kept repeating ‘Muslim woman’, when I thought she should say ‘hijabi Muslim woman’ because when you say ‘Muslim woman’ it is as if you are defining Muslim women in a certain way, omitting Muslim women who do not fit that picture.

Sara: Yeah, because the term ‘Muslim woman’ is not as simple as some people may think.

Shahd: Exactly. You’re almost putting the Muslim women in one picture, generalising Muslim women, basically. It’s true that the people who are mostly the target of these rising hate crimes are those visible Muslims, but there are other reasons: skin colour, gender, ethnicity. And religion is just one thing. That’s why the discussion has be contextual.

Sara: Have you ever found people saying offensive things because they mistake your identity? Maybe other Muslims who do not see you as a Muslim because you do not wear a hijab? Has that ever happened?

Shahd: No, to be honest I get the opposite. I always say I am a Palestinian woman,  no more or less. And some people assume that I am a Muslim, which for me is an indication of ignorance, because they are presuming that all Palestinians are Muslims. We have Christians in Palestine, we also have a minority of Jews. And I think as a political activist it is very important to clarify that Palestinians are fighting an anti-colonial struggle, and our fight for justice shouldn’t be defined in religious terms. Palestinians, of all religions, are indiscriminately subjugated to the oppression of the colonial state of Israel.

Sara: Yes, I understand what you’re saying. It isn’t just Muslims against Jews. It’s not that clear cut.

Shahd: Yes, but of course I get attacked because of my identity as a Palestinian. Once I was in a bagel shop in London, and a lady saw this Palestine flag necklace that I have. She started very nicely, saying, ‘Oh, you look so beautiful’, and I replied, ‘Thank you, thank you’. She then asked where I was from and I said with a big smile, ‘Palestine’. She then asked, ‘Oh Palestine, what do you mean?’, and I said, ‘Palestine, you know Israel?’, and as I was about to say, ‘Israel is the colonial power of Palestine’, she interrupted, ‘Of course I know Israel’, and then, ‘But Palestine doesn’t exist? Only Israel does’. She was aggressively refusing to acknowledge that Palestinians exist. Later, I understood she was a Zionist.

Sara: That’s ridiculous.

Shahd: I always get that. My cousin is also here in the UK. On New Year’s Eve she was on the train, going to celebrate, it was like a half hour to midnight and these ladies hear her and her friends speaking in Arabic. The lady asks them, ‘Where you from?’. And my cousin says, ‘I’m from Palestine’, and then they go, ‘What is Palestine? Palestine doesn’t exist. Only Israel exists!’, and they shouted and made a scene. And my cousin and her friend didn’t engage, but the ladies continued to provoke them. Everybody on the train was telling them to be more respectful. Members of the public had to interfere, because they were completely rude.

Sara: I don’t really hear about these things often. It’s good you’re raising awareness.

Shahd: Of course, online as well. Everything from the accusation of my stories being fictional, to horrible, horrible things. They want to undermine your credibility, and don’t show any sensitivity. I was writing from Gaza during an attack, and I was losing members of my family and friends. I am writing from the inside, and people are accusing me of being fictitious. Such people lack humanity, the ability to empathise, you know.

Sara: I admire you. You’ve been through a lot, but you still remain positive and upbeat.

Shahd: It’s tiring and exhausting but you know we don’t have the choice.

Sara: Yeah, that’s the thing. You have to carry on and keep fighting.

Shahd: Exactly – like when people romanticise Palestinians’ resistance and resilience in Gaza, they don’t understand that for us, it is a forced reality. We don’t have a choice; the only other option is succumbing to despair. It’s been going for so long, for seven decades. The way people try to maintain an ordinary life amidst the extraordinary situation is in itself an act of resistance. It is not easy, but life has to continue in one way or another.

Sara: By doing it you are resisting.

Shahd: Yes, exactly.

Sara: Do you feel by moving to London that your sense of identity has changed? For me, anyway, being brought up in England compared to my family in Iran, especially as they are very strongly religious, has created this sense of dual identity. I am one person in front of my family and another when I am away.

Shahd: As a woman, of course I feel like I have less restrictions here, and I can be more open about how I want to look, and how I behave. This is the only thing that has changed. To be honest, I like it. Identity is such a complex concept. I’m not only a Palestinian, I am a woman, and that makes me subject to multiple layers of oppression, ranging from colonialism to patriarchy, so yeah, it is difficult. It means that I wake up every day and confront multiple oppressive power structures, both explicit or implicit.

Sara: My final question: what does the word borders mean to you?

Shahd: The physical are, for example, the ones that Israel imposes to cut Gaza off from the rest of the world, imposed to effectively lock up the people in an open-air prison. The ideological borders are colonialism, the patriarchy, stereotypes, taboos, and other social constructs. I’ve had a lot of traumatic experiences that I could draw examples from.

At one point, I was stranded at Rafah border, Gaza’s only exit to the outside world, when my body suddenly became the ground on which the most hegemonic ideological political parties fought for power, manipulating me as a woman. I was sexual assaulted. I was one of the travellers desperate to leave, to get my scholarship that I received outside. I missed my flight, and was battling with an accumulation of anger, frustration, and feelings of dehumanisation and powerlessness.

On 29 September 2013, I was waiting at the border again, when it was announced that they were closed, and we were asked to come back later. Tens of thousands of people were so frustrated and angry, after so many failed attempts, that they formed a spontaneous demonstration towards the Rafah gate. I was right at the front, screaming and shouting, pushing the gate until it broke which gave us a symbolic feeling of liberation. It didn’t last for long, as Hamas police soon formed (Hamas is the governing power in Gaza). The place was full of journalists covering the trapped travellers.

Suddenly, someone gropes me from behind. I thought it was accidental, but it happens again, and that’s when all my frustration and anger exploded against him. I turned and I punched him. It is scary to confront, and considered a taboo in our society to speak up. The tendency is to blame the victim. The police soon noticed, and joined me before arresting him. I went home feeling so drained.

The first thing I saw online was a video of the moment I was groped, and I’m completely blurred out, taken out of context. Hamas media released ‘the reality behind what happened in Rafah border’, reframed to suit their political agenda. I couldn’t passively watch this manipulation of me, used to reinforce political divisions and oppressive gender regimes. So I declared my identity in a Facebook post announcing my rejection of such unacceptable discourse, something no woman has ever done before in Palestine. My post was shared widely, locally and internationally. It became the story of the day and I didn’t know how it happened.

I found myself fighting against a physical border that dehumanised me and denied me the right to travel and study. After the sexual assault, I was confronting an ideological border that sexualised me and used me. Unfortunately, four years later, Rafah border is still closed and there may be other women who are subject to sexual assault, not just in Gaza, but everywhere around the world. But my consolation is that I encouraged a debate around sexual violence against women, an under-discussed issue in Palestinian society. I wrote about it in length in an article published recently by Kohl Journal; it’s called ‘Women Revolt’.

Sara: Thank you so much for talking to me, Shahd.



Interview by Sara Jafari
Photography by Stella Malfilâtre

Syrup 2022