We are used to seeing her strong in the face of all challenges, standing tall at a time when many bowed, screaming while others are silent. She is the Palestinian woman, who despite war, occupation and grinding poverty, does not give up. She insists on continuing to fight for a decent life.
Salwa Srour is one such Palestinian woman. She is 63 years old and is, in my opinion, a model and a symbol for everyone facing challenges with strength. She grew up in the Gaza Strip and, despite the heavy pressures of a patriarchal society, has never married. She is the first and only female to work as a bus driver in Gaza. She also is my aunt.
Here is her story:
"I run a kindergarten with my sister, a job that required me to look for a bus driver to drive the kids to their homes. Many problems were caused by the men we hired, such as being late each time. They didn’t take responsibility and were very impatient. But above all, they didn’t respect time. We gave up on the bus drivers after we had to change them many times for these reasons. In the end, I decided to buy a bus and depend on myself and my own power. So I have my own bus, run my own business and am not dependent on anyone.”
Have you always been so independent?
Yes. I grew up in a pretty liberal family. My mom and dad were well educated and did not have closed minds. They always treated me and my brothers the same—unlike in other families. I belong to a very conservative society; discrimination between men and women is still practiced in most areas.
How does society react to a lady who drives a bus freely in the streets?
Well, anything new that is added to our culture in Gaza, whether negative or positive, is rejected in the beginning. But after a period of getting used to it, it becomes normal to people. I still remember when, during the first days, the reaction I would get when I stopped at a traffic signal. A taxi driver would stare at me and I would ask "What's wrong with you?" He would stammer, “No there is nothing!” And no further comment!
I want to go back in time a little. You said in our first meeting that this wasn’t the first time you drove a bus. Do you mean that you worked as a bus driver before?
Not exactly. In 1996, I drove the bus occasionally for the language center my sister ran. But now, I work officially as a bus driver for my kindergarten.
When did you start driving and how long have you been working as a bus driver?
I’ve been driving [a vehicle] since 1976. When I was only 16 years old, I used to take my mom's car while she was sleeping. I was young and I couldn't even get a license yet, so I knew my mom would never allow me to drive. My siblings didn’t even know I was driving my mom's car. But I stopped when a friend of my family saw me in the street and came to my home to tell my mom.
Yeah, but he didn’t because I promised him not to do that again. Soon after I finished high school, I asked my mom to let me take driving lessons so I could drive freely and legally and she agreed.
Was your mom strong?
Yes, my mom was a powerful woman. She was well known in Gaza, and I was influenced by her character. She bore the responsibility of my family alone, since my dad was working outside of Gaza. She worked hard to provide all of the family needs; she was a father and mother at the same time.
What did you tell yourself through all of this that allowed you to be prepared for the worst? After all, you challenged society in your dress, your decision not to marry and your job.
People have descended from generation to generation with their own ideas. This dynamic process of society enhances a culture, not weakens it.
I have worn jeans and shirts since I was a child. Honestly, I don't like dresses and skirts; I don't feel comfortable in them. Personally, I don't care what people say. People will never stop talking about you and the best thing to do is to ignore them as long as you don't harm others. I believe that I don't do anything truly haram (sinful). I just tell myself, "Don’t get too sensitive." All I need is to risk it and everything will be fine.
A lot of men prefer to marry an employee to help make payments and he doesn't even help her with work at home. Men know how to take but not to give. In addition, I am single; I have no sons to depend on in my life so I have to be independent. I don't want to be at the mercy of anyone. Life is so hard in Gaza as it is, especially for women.
How satisfied are you with your life?
I am satisfied with myself. I helped change the view of women in this society. I feel I made a little difference in people's lives, in particular the women. A lot of people appreciate my work and many of them encourage me to go on. It is very different from the past.