By Asmaa ElKhaldi
In a conservative culture like the Gaza Strip, girls tend to have a lot of people telling them what they can and can’t (mostly can’t) do. Take horseback riding. The females who dare to become equestrians typically complain that they receive criticisms like, "It doesn't fit you as a girl to ride horses," or "It's not polite for a girl to practice riding on horses."
"But this will never stop me," says Amal Abu Shammala, a19-year old Palestinian girl from Gaza City who studies engineering at the Islamic University of Gaza. Her passion for horseback riding was “discovered” when Amal was in the ninth grade and her family took a trip to Egypt. When she asked her father if she could try riding a horse as most tourists do, her family was surprised and proud to see she could ride easily by herself! When they asked where she learned to ride, she answered, "By watching some videos on the Internet and reading online.”
When she returned home, Amal began visiting an equestrian club in the Al-Sudanyia area, North Gaza, with some friends. She knew she wanted to do it too, and her father—a former football (soccer) player and sports enthusiast—finally let her take lessons when he saw girls and even children practicing at the club.
"I was a player on the Palestinian football team,” recalls Issam Abu Shammala. “I believe sports are very important for every person; they strengthen the body, mind and spirit."
Amal is fortunate her father is so supportive. It is difficult for women to pursue any athletic sport in Gaza without the permission of their families. Financial support is needed as well, which is hard for most families in Gaza these days, due to the Israeli blockade and repeated assaults. Training to be an athlete is expensive and Amal's family pays as well for her transportation to the club, which is located far from her home in western Gaza.
Her love for horses means Amal develops a very close relationship with the animals she rides. When her favorite horse, Hector, died suddenly this summer, his death shocked her and she didn't eat for several days; her tears fell nonstop. She decided not to go back to the equestrian club where Hector lived, switching instead to another one. "I can't bear going there and not seeing my most beloved creature. He was one of my family members," Amal explains.
Amal stopped her practices only briefly to prepare for her final high school exams (called the Tawjehi). It was then that Amal participated in a jumping championship that also was the first time her family watched her perform. They were scared she would be harmed as they watched, since so many others fell off their horses. But Amal surprised everyone once again. Not only did she complete the competition unharmed, she even won first place!
Practicing such a sport is not always safe, Amal admits. "As a horse rider, you can at any time fall to the ground or get kicked.” She has fallen from her horse several times and once she broke her nose. Because of her parents’ fear after that, her father forbade her from riding for a short time. However, she won him over and convinced him to allow her to go back to practicing.
Abu Shammala believes his daughter’s passion should not be extinguished. And by finding joy in riding horses, Amal shows the world there is another way of living in the war-torn Gaza Strip.
Asmaa, 19, is a second-year architecture student at the Islamic University of Gaza and a freelance. She writes for We are not numbers.