This is a story of grinding poverty, the strangling confines of rigid patriarchy and narrowed options due to lack of education. This also is a story of a dream stolen, then pursued and achieved 31 years later.
Nahla Abu Dagga is 47 years old, with eight children ranging in age from 30 to 10—two daughters and six sons. But this story starts when Nahla was just 16. It was 1987 and the First Intifada was raging across the Palestinian territories, including Gaza. Nahla’s older sister secured a job in Saudi Arabia and their father was in a quandary. He wanted to protect his older daughter by traveling with her to her new home, but how could he leave Nahla without the supervision of a man? His solution: Nahla was pushed into marriage, dropping out of high school to become a wife. Four years older, he had at least finished secondary school, but his own family’s need for financial support meant university was not an option. Instead, he found manual-labor work in Israel, the land of his occupier. (The work paid better than what could be found at home; however, that option has since been foreclosed by the ever-tightening Israeli blockade.)
Nahla had been a clever and distinguished student, and she tried several times to persuade her husband to let her return to school. But she failed; he believed her focus should be on home and family. Her life revolved around cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry and raising her children.
“This is the society in which I was raised,” shrugged Nahla. “I had to put my dreams behind me and focus on my children. But I always paid attention to who received the best tawjihi results each year, and when top students lived near me, I made it a point to congratulate them. I lived vicacriously through them.”
Despite Nahla’s belief in the importance of education and her own regrets, she watched as her oldest daughter, Abeer, was pushed by her husband in the same direction. Before she could finish high school, Abeer married—into a family in which her father-in-law insisted she stay at home instead of pursuing her education. A girl going out of the home alone is not “appropriate,” said her husband.
In Abeer’s case, however, her husband was abusive in other ways as well. And that’s what began to change her father’s attitude. He joined Nahla in supporting Abeer when she left her husband and moved home. When their youngest daughter, Zohoor, was ready to complete high school, her parents united in supporting her desire for further education.
This time, however, it was Nahla’s turn too. Thirty years after Nahla was forced to leave high school before completing the final tawjihi exam, she joined Zohoor so they could take it together. The exam will determine the subject Zohoor can study in university. For Nahla, it’s a dream fulfilled.
“We all worked to persuade our dad that Mom should take the exam with me,” says Zohoor. “We said we would help her at home and my brothers would help pay the expenses. When he finally agreed, I was over the moon with happiness for her—and for me. The final year of high school is really hard and it was so great to have my mom truly by my side.”
Nahla’s children did their best to support their mother and help her as she studied. Abeer, who had studied to complete her own tawjihi in secret and then went on to university, coached her in English along with her brother Anas. Another son, Ismail, who completed a university degree in computer science, helped her study technology. (That was particularly needed, since it wasn’t a subject when she was still in high school.) Zohoor studied everything with her mom, saying she felt like they had become “twin sisters.”
On each day of studying, the two would complete their household chores then retreat to Zohoor’s bedroom. If Nahla left for any reason, Zohoor called her to back; she found that she could concentrate the best with her mother in the room. When Zohoor was confused about a subject or problem, Nahla explained it to her and vice versa.
“Everyone got involved!” laughs Zohoor. “My friends loved her a lot and my teachers encouraged her too. Everyone who knows her cheered her on.”
And then came the day when the results were announced: Nahla, 95%; Zohoor, 91%. Lots of hugs, dancing and singing were shared among Nahla’s children, daughters-in-law and grandchildren.
Now what? Nahla isn’t done. Both she and Zohoor have registered to attend Gaza’s Al-Aqsa University—with the daughter choosing interior design and the mother pursuing Islamic studies. In fact, Nahla is already thinking about getting her master’s degree and Ph.D.!
And Zohoor’s friends are saying, “My mother should complete her studies too!”Nahla would encourage them to do so. “It is never too late to achieve your dreams. You just must have determination and persistence. I hope I can be a good role model for every woman who has left her dream of education behind. We can challenge our circumstances! We can do it!”