GAZA – They have almost all left: Bachar for Sweden, May for Spain, Imad for Tunisia, Mohamed for Qatar, Assad for Egypt, Adham for Belgium. Moustapha, Asmaa’s brother also left for Belgium, while Mohamed Matar, aka Abou Yazan, the leader of the short-lived March 15 Movement, that tried to bring the Arab Spring to Gaza, has gone to Germany.

Too much repression from Hamas, too much disappointment from waiting for an intra-Palestinian reconciliation that never came. Too much suffering, too many wars and hardships, but most of all – the Israeli blockade.

A hope that has died and a future that is dead-ended, especially for young graduates. So many young people have left, but Asmaa stayed -- determined, courageous, as combative as ever.

If there should only be one person left, it should be her. “I could have gone too, but I love Gaza, and Europe bores me. Over there, I am nothing, and there is nothing to change. I need challenges, fights to fight and causes to defend.” 

Asmaa leaves our meeting like she arrived, by foot, her hair uncovered, wearing a jean and not caring one bit about what others think. While she was telling me her story, she chain-smoked and pointed to the beach below the hotel.

This is where everything happened, during the summer of 2009. She was walking on the beach with a group of young men and women. The morality police arrived, took the boys to jail. Asmaa was released, but her passport was confiscated.

In 2007, shortly after the Palestinian civil war, Asmaa, a journalist since 2001, was in South Korea for a journalism course. During her stay, she wrote an article in the form of an open letter to her uncle, a senior military leader for the Hamas. The article, entitled “Dear Uncle, Is This The Homeland We Want?” criticized the movement’s extremist Islamist views. In response, her uncle threatened to kill her.

In Oct. 2009 “before the Arab Spring,” she says, she founded the Iss Ha (Wake Up) movement with around 20 friends. “Our objective was to fight against the Hamas’ Islamization of the Gaza strip.” 

The next year, the group of young activists walked the streets of Gaza carrying a huge ballot box demanding Palestinian elections – which are still eagerly awaited.

The number of arrests increased, and so did harassment. In Jan. 2010, Asmaa was arrested with others. “We were guilty of demonstrating our support to the revolution against Mubarak!” She spent eight hours in jail, humiliated, beaten by policewomen who accused her of “not being Muslim.” 

In Nov. 2010, the police closed the Gaza offices of the Sharek Youth Forum, a UN-funded NGO that organizes camps and after-school programs for Palestinian children and youths. Eighteen activists were arrested and severely beaten. From then on, protests and arrests became a regular thing. In March 2011, Asma is thrown in prison and violently beaten by police officers. 

Too many threats

Asmaa El-Ghoul is a 30-year-old free-lance journalist and writer. She writes for the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam but mostly, she blogs relentlessly, with absolutely no taboo. She writes about forced islamization, the “honor crimes”, corruption, human rights violations and about woman rights. “If you want to be able to write about these subjects honestly, you have to be in the streets too,” she says. 

The arrests and punishments keep coming. Death threats, by phone, by mail and on her blog continue to increase. “We will kill you, we will break your bones, burn you with your son.”

But the awards keep coming too. Last October she was given honored with a “Courage in Journalism” award by the International Women's Media Foundation.

Before that one she received a similar prize given by the Dubai foundation and an award by the Anna Lindh Foundation for her “commitment to freedom of expression and her courage in facing repression.”

Asmaa El-Ghoul uses this international recognition to find fortitude, to give her strength in her new fights. The latest of these fights is emblematic of the rampant islamization of Gaza.  

In Jan. 2013, the board of the Al-Aqsa University in the Gaza strip decided that social and family pressure to insure that all women dress “properly” wasn’t enough. The board voted to impose a dress code on female students – saying that from the next semester it would be mandatory for them to wear “clothes that respect the customs and traditions of the Palestinian society.” These clothes include a headscarf (hijab), and a loose-fitting ankle-length robe (jilbab).

Asmaa does not feel concerned by this – she got rid of her headscarf in 2006. However, she feels responsible for the girls of Gaza who refuse to wear the Islamic uniform. 

She has stopped blogging for a while now. She received too many threats. “If after my son, they start threatening my six-months old daughter, I will go nuts.”

She also now tries to be less provocative – has stopped smoking on the beach or in the street. “Sometimes I feel like I am alone in the middle of a storm,” she says. 

She is writing a book on Gaza and continues to write articles, mostly for Al-Monitor. Talking about freedom, it’s like an illness for her, she says. “An illness I’ll have all my life, but an illness I love.”