I’m working on a long magazine article about women’s rights in Gaza, and I’ll use this blog post to provide a brief overview.
Westerners may be surprised by Gaza's abundance of accomplished female leaders, particularly those working in schools and NGOs. Most Gazan men and women achieve at least an eighth grade education, and the overwhelming majority of Gazans believe that women are entitled to an education. Religiously conservative Gazans emphasize that the Prophet Mohammed proclaimed the rights of women to attend school, to work, and to reject marriage proposals.
Women also assume limited political leadership in Gaza. Under the Fatah government, a quota system was introduced requiring that about ten percent of parliament seats be reserved for women. Hamas has upheld this quota system. The two highest ranking women in Hamas, Jamila Al-Shanti and Huda Naim, told me they participate in sensitive policy-making decisions and take leading roles in governmental committees. One former NGO worker named Itemad Tarshawi ran on the Hamas ticket in a municipal election and won without a quota. “I earned people’s trust and respect by working for many years on the grassroots level in a way that honors our traditions,” she said.
Across the Arab world, cultural traditions typically give women responsibility for the domestic sphere and regard them as requiring special protection from male relatives. However, the women’s rights situation in Gaza differs profoundly from the situation in other Arab countries because Gaza’s history has been colored by so many unusual influences. Decades of war and occupation have forced women to take on new leadership roles as husbands and brothers were killed or jailed. At the same time, war, occupation, and now the siege have ravaged family relationships. Some analysts argue that domestic violence is on the rise in Gaza in part due to exacerbating factors: pervasive psychological trauma, the shame of rampant unemployment, and the daily stresses of poverty and entrapment within the densely populated Gaza Strip.
Most—but not all— Gazan women who wear hijab (the Islamic headscarf) tell me they wear it proudly and do not regard it as a sign of oppression. For them, hijab is a symbol of modesty, religious devotion, and / or cultural heritage. Many also feel that hijab protects them from unwanted male attention. A growing minority of Gazan women wear himar, a scarf which reveals only their eyes. (See picture on right.) While the majority of Palestinian women did not cover their hair in the 1980s and 1990s, uncovered Palestinian women are now a rare sight in Gaza, particularly outside of Gaza City. By contrast, cultural norms in the West Bank are less conservative than Gaza. These days, it’s easy to find uncovered Palestinian women in West Bank cities like Ramallah, Bethlehem or even Nablus.
Under Hamas rule, government policies regarding personal freedoms have tightened. Those most affected are liberals who live outside of Gaza City's more well-to-do neighborhoods. Within these elite enclaves, uncovered women like myself can freely walk the streets. (Outside of these areas, however, I choose to wear hijab to avoid unwanted attention.) Unmarried women and men can also freely fraternize at Gaza City restaurants and coffee shops, although most choose to sit in gender-segregated groups. (See picture above.)
Outside of Gaza City, police often interrogate suspected unmarried couples. Government school principals have pressured, and even required, adolescent girls to wear hijab while in school. However, religious conservatism has been rising in Gaza for decades, and many citizens support Hamas’s restrictions on "religiously inappropriate" behavior.
Three months ago, Hamas policy informed male hairdressers that an unofficial new policy forbade them from accepting female customers. (Nael Al-Raess, the Gaza City salon owner pictured on the right, continues to cut women’s hair, and the government has chosen not to forcibly stop him.) However, Hamas’s unofficial prohibition on mixed gender music concerts is strictly enforced. This year, Hamas police shut down at least two such concerts in Gaza City.
While liberals view these actions as obvious signs of oppression, Hamas leaders and more conservative Gazans view them as attempts to protect women’s safety and honor. They believe that mixed gender music concerts, for example, will quickly give way to a maelstrom of inappropriate male-female interactions that will erode the traditional values of their society.