Gaza Instagram stars offer world ‘beautiful’ glimpse into blockaded Palestinian territory in hope of changing perceptions
Kholoud Nassar and Fatma Mosabah want their 100,000 followers to see a different side of Gaza. But because of their digital pursuits, the women have faced online trolls and offline opposition
They may not be able to leave Gaza without Israeli or Egyptian permission, but their photos can.
Kholoud Nassar, 26, and Fatma Mosabah, 21, are among a small number of Instagram stars in the blockaded Palestinian enclave, showing followers a different side of their homeland from that which much of the world may be used to hearing or seeing on the news.
“I see Instagram as a window,” says Nassar, wearing a pink hijab and fiddling with a toy car that features in many of her pictures. Mosabah says: “When I open the internet I can talk to people across the world.”
Both have more than 100,000 followers on the social platform and say they get recognised multiple times a day in the tiny territory that is home to almost two million people.
Sealed off by Israel to the east and north, Egypt to the south and the Mediterranean Sea to the west, it is impossible for Gazans to leave the enclave without permission. Neither woman has left Gaza in more than a decade. Israel also refuses to give permits for tourists to visit the strip, leaving most people outside to imagine life there.
And with three wars having been fought since 2008 between the strip’s rulers Hamas and Israel, many people’s ideas of Gaza centre on devastation, poverty and suffering. The women use Instagram, with its focus on pictures over text and political arguments, to show another side.
A post shared by فاطمة أبو مصبح | FATMA (@fatma_mosabah) on Sep 17, 2017 at 6:27am PDT
“War is a part of Gaza, but it is not all [of] Gaza. I wanted to show there was more to Gaza – as in any country,” says Nassar, in a cafe near the coast in Gaza City.
“Take America: there is poverty, there are destroyed homes, but at the same time there are beautiful places. Gaza is the same. Through these pictures I want people to see Gaza, how people live, eat and work.”
Nassar’s pictures range from young children to harvests, all bathed in a range of colours, while Mosabah shows all sides of daily life. Both women feature heavily in their own pictures, with wide smiles.
Mosabah agrees that the aim is to “change the perception of Gaza” away from political matters. “To show its beautiful side, that’s the most important thing; far from the destruction, blockade and the wars.”
A post shared by Kholoud Nassar (@kholoudnassar) on Jul 17, 2017 at 11:54am PDT
A United Nations official recently said the strip may already be unliveable. Yet despite Gazans receiving only a few hours of electricity a day in recent months, social media outlets remain popular.
Ali Bkheet, president of the Palestinian Social Media Club, estimates that around 50 per cent of Gazans have Facebook, though numbers on Instagram and Twitter are significantly smaller.
A post shared by Kholoud Nassar (@kholoudnassar) on Feb 17, 2017 at 11:16pm PST
He says the decade-long Israeli blockade has made Gazans particularly keen to use social media “to express ourselves and communicate our voice”.
Nassar started using social media before the last war in 2014, in which she documented the human toll of the conflict. In the three years since, she has sought to focus on how Gazans struggle through terrible conditions – including creating a “trying to live” hashtag to show how people were putting their lives back together after the war.
A post shared by Kholoud Nassar (@kholoudnassar) on Sep 16, 2017 at 5:09am PDT
Nassar carries a toy car – an old Volkswagen Beetle – in her bag at all times. It features in dozens of her photos and has become a trademark helping her connect with others. People from across the Arab world now send her pictures of real cars, which she posts on her page.
For Mosabah, Instagram is also a source of revenue – making between US$300 and US$400 a month from e-marketing and adverts on her page.
In a region where 60 per cent of young people are unemployed and the average salary is a couple of hundred dollars, she has carved out a niche for herself.
A post shared by Kholoud Nassar (@kholoudnassar) on Feb 10, 2017 at 10:48am PST
Sheldon Himelfarb, head of US-based PeaceTech Lab, which has researched how social media impacts political awareness, says social media can help break down barriers between people across the globe.
But he warns researchers are still trying to assess whether the selective nature of what is published helps or hinders efforts to gain a fuller picture.
“I believe in my conversations with university students, they seem to imply they are more aware about parts of the world than certainly their parents were. But whether they are more accurately told, I don’t know,” he says.
A post shared by فاطمة أبو مصبح | FATMA (@fatma_mosabah) on Sep 20, 2017 at 12:20pm PDT
Instagram is of course a selective version of life, with the women taking dozens of pictures before deciding on their favourite to show the world. But despite the thought that goes into their selections, they aren’t protected from the bane of social media – trolls.
Islamist group Hamas has conservative attitudes towards women, as do many Gazans. Mosabah says she blocks between five and 20 people a day on Instagram who make inappropriate comments. “Maybe [when] I take a picture with someone, they say the picture is shameful because I was with a man. I do a lot of blocking,” she laughs.
A post shared by فاطمة أبو مصبح | FATMA (@fatma_mosabah) on Sep 13, 2017 at 6:22am PDT
For Nassar, it has even strayed into the real world. Once she was taking pictures in Beit Lahia, one of Gaza’s most conservative areas, when women started screaming at her.
“There are people here who criticise me – they say ‘you are going out, taking pictures. You should stay at home and cook’,” Nassar says. “Maybe because I wear a hijab they criticise me more.”