Palestine: Women of Gaza fear for their freedoms under new religious regime

The Independent
Naila Ayesh, a secular married woman who frequently goes about Gaza in Western clothes, has already noticed a subtle change since Hamas's election victory last Wednesday.
"You will hear even kids saying to you, 'your head isn't covered now but it will be. You can drive now but you won't be able to later."
She relates, too, how a woman friend described telling a neighbour that her child attended Gaza City's American school. "What, you send her to the crusader school?" the shocked neighbour replied. "Why don't you send her to the Sheikh Ahmed Yassin school [named after the late Hamas founder] where she can learn languages as well as the Koran?" Ms Ayesh added: "All this happened before but it's been happening more since the election."

Ms Ayesh is a staunch Palestinian nationalist - both she and her husband have served severe terms in Israeli prisons for their politics. But her worries about the rippling internal effects of Hamas's victory go further than these relatively trivial omens.

For Ms Ayesh runs the Women's Affairs Centre, a brave oasis of progressive feminism in fiercely conservative Gaza. The Islamic faction and its allies in the mosques do not warm to many of its causes; the centre has campaigned for a shelter for battered women here, but its campaign has been in vain because of fears that a shelter would encourage women to leave their husbands.

Its work ranges from an experimental programme introducing Islamic University women students to the law, human rights and job opportunities, to campaigning for a family law which would protect women from abuse and safeguard their custody rights after divorce. It fears this would notbe a priority for Hamas. "I am not worried about the laws already in place because that requires a two-thirds majority, but I am worried about the legislation which has not yet gone through," Ms Ayesh says.

Hamas is far from being the Taliban. It strongly supports women's education, is generally opposed to "honour killing", and some of its candidates supported women's shelters. Its spokesmen have also been at pains to stress that it does not intend in the foreseeable future to impose its religious ideology - including its long-term commitment to sharia (Islamic law) - on the parliament.

But Ms Ayesh is concerned that the more congenial public message sometimes conflicts with the deeply held belief of its new PLC members. For example, she notes that Mariam Farhat, the "Mother of Martyrs" whose election video showed her helping her own 17-year-old son to prepare explosives which killed him and five Israelis, said in an interview that her first parliamentary campaign would be for a law requiring all Palestinian women to wear the hejab. To Ms Ayesh, Mrs Farhat's later disavowal of the interview was unconvincing. But, in any case, she expects the change to be cultural and gradual rather than legislative. "Hamas will not do this directly but they will use other respected figures, for example in the mosques."

Ms Ayesh is the first to acknowledge that the huge vote for Hamas reflected a deep desire to "punish" Fatah for its failures over the past decade. And while she has heard accusations that Hamas deployed 200-shekel enticements to more ill-informed voters to back its candidates in what was in fact an admirably secret ballot, she says that there are at least as many reports of Fatah doing the same. But she also said that women she encountered in her work reported another potent message on the doorsteps from Hamas campaigners, who were often themselves women. "The women said they were told, 'if you do not vote Hamas, God will punish you at the end'."

By Donald Macintyre
Published: 30 January 2006