Women behind the lens: ‘I find solace in the sea. I feel awash with relief’

This image is of a woman called Ifaf in the shallow waters of the Mediterranean. She can’t swim and fears deep water, but the sea is where she wants to be when feeling overwhelmed. It’s her refuge from life’s pressures.

“The second I see the sea I feel awash with a great sense of relief. Submerging myself washes away anything that bothers me. Almost instantly. The sea is where I find solace. I feel at one with it.”

She drives there from her home town, about 14 miles away. I saw her submerging herself one hot August day last year and was intrigued. Was it an act of cleansing? Healing? Was she hot and bothered?

Now in her early 60s, the mother of five was always motivated and independent. She had big career dreams. She wanted to join the medical profession. As a Palestinian, her opportunities were limited.

At secondary school, the subject she wanted to specialise in wasn’t available so she decided to study in the neighbouring Jewish town where learning opportunities were wider. She was one of the first female Palestinian students to join the Hebrew school. On graduating at 18, she worked in a textile factory in Tel Aviv to support her family and fund further studies.

She would leave her home six mornings a week at 4.30am to travel 50 miles (80km) each way. She went to college after work to complete her bookkeeping diploma. She is still working, enhancing her skills and learning new things.

Learning about her life and how important the sea is for her peace of mind, I couldn’t help but think of the Muslim woman in France being fined for wearing long-sleeved top on a beach, the controversy around the burkini ban and the debate it evokes around secularism, individual freedoms, Islamophobia and exclusion.

Ifaf made me question our ability to live with difference. Whether we have the right to judge anyone on the basis of what they wear. And how rewarding and calming the sea is for her.

Manal Massalha is a freelance researcher, ethnographer and self-taught social documentary photographer. To view her work visit manalmassalha.com

Sign up for Her Stage to hear directly from incredible women in the developing world on the issues that matter to them, delivered to your inbox monthly: