The Shadia Abu Ghazala secondary school for girls in the Jabalia neighborhood of the Gaza Strip. (Photo by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images) Photo: Christian Science Monitor
Early this month Hamas, the Islamist group that swept to victory in the Gaza Strip's first and only free elections in 2006, announced that come September they will be enforcing gender segregation in all schools with students aged nine and up.
Although many Muslim schools already separate male and female students, this new law will affect not only Islamic but also Christian and other private schools. These institutions, already operating in one of the most poverty-stricken societies in the world, will be forced to divert resources away from education to infrastructure, in order to expand their buildings to accommodate separate classes.
The move has been slammed by women's organisations such as the Gaza Centre for Women's Legal Research and Consulting, who called it "gender-based discrimination". They are right to be concerned. This law is the latest step in Hamas's effort to enforce its strict interpretation of Islamic law on society.
Although many Palestinians are socially conservative, it is of concern that Hamas seeks to entrench social custom and morality, a traditionally personal matter, into political law.
So austere is Hamas's vision that even those who agree with a certain degree of gender segregation think the group goes too far in, for example, forbidding male teachers from teaching female students.
This unforgiving implementation of gender segregation will mainly impact on women because, as we have already discovered in places such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, separate is never equal. When men and women are forbidden from mingling in even educational and work environments, then invariably it is women who are driven out of the public sphere and into the home. This, it is all too apparent, is exactly what Hamas, which derives inspiration from Saudi Arabia's strict Wahhabi strain of Islam, has in mind.
Gender-segregated schools are but the latest in a long line of reforms Hamas has instigated in the years following its ascension to power in 2006, a victory it achieved on the back of widespread anti-Israel sentiment following that country's long-awaited decision to withdraw its troops from Gaza. Although Gazans willingly voted for Hamas, they did so amid election promises that Hamas would not interfere with personal freedoms.
That promise, along with the dreams of an independent democratic state, has been well and truly quashed. In recent years, Hamas has introduced, and ruthlessly enforced, a wide range of laws aimed at controlling every aspect of the lives of Palestinians living in Gaza – laws which disproportionately affect women.
Some of these measures are farcical and include, but are not limited to, forcing fortune tellers to abandon their profession, cracking down on "modest dress" for women, which includes forcing lingerie shops to not feature advertisements of women in underwear or even lingerie clad mannequins.
In 2010, Hamas banned women from smoking water pipes in public, claiming it destroys marriage and sullies the image of Palestinians. "It is inappropriate for a woman to sit cross-legged and smoke in public," said Ihab Ghussein, the interior ministry spokesmen.
And just last month the United Nations cancelled its annual Gaza marathon following Hamas's decision to ban women from participating because they "don't want men and women running together". To grasp just how much Hamas has hardened in recent years, it is worth noting that in previous years Hamas has actually sponsored and publicly supported the race – along with its female participants.
But women are not, by any means, the only ones affected. Young men deemed "too Western" looking are arrested for wearing baggy, low riding pants and sporting long hair. Police routinely crack down on Muslims drinking alcohol, which although considered haram (forbidden) in Islam, was once upon a time considered a private matter, and it was generally left up to individual Muslims to decide for themselves how to practice their religion.
Clearly, Hamas is ignoring the words of one of the most famous verses in the Koran which unequivocally states, "Let there be no compulsion in religion", a rallying call for freedom of – and from – religion if ever there was one.
This relentless politicisation of Islam is a cruel blow to the people of Gaza who have struggled under an Israeli sea, land and air blockade for more than six years. Israeli sanctions have limited Gaza's access to medical, food and building supplies. The United Nations, which has frequently criticised the blockade, refers to Gaza as "an open air prison", and has repeatedly warned of a dire humanitarian crisis.
In 2012, unemployment stood at 29 per cent and continues to rise. Some 38 per cent of Gazans live below the poverty line. Sanitation is poor and hunger, malnutrition and disease a fact of life. Travel bans and difficulties in obtaining passports mean Gazans are literally stuck in this situation. Even fishermen who venture too far out to sea for Israel's liking are fired upon.
In such an environment, it is as absurd as it is infuriating that Hamas would prioritise moral issues above all others. One would think that the people of Gaza have enough to deal with without being hounded by their own government over personal matters that should rightly concern only themselves. As such, Hamas's focus only serves to compound the intolerable oppression of its own people. A people that, in a rare moment of jubilation for a population that justice forgot, voted them into power amid promises of a free, thriving, and united community.