Forced to be in separate classes

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)

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.

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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.

 

16 comments

  • It seems cliche' to say that Hamas is ignoring certain passages of its holy book as a means of control, particularly of women. This has always been true in every demographic.

    Religion has always promoted the division of the sexes, not becuase of the inferiority of women, but becuase giving them equalitiy of any kind takes any (divine) entitlement away from men. Give women freedom from religion and the religion would collapse overnight.

    The only way for women to be free is to educate them. Do so, and they will free themselves.

    Commenter
    Journeyman
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    April 24, 2013, 9:41AM
    • The real danger is that by depriving individuals of choice in these matters authorities are instigating a mindset which leads to conformism and amongst some, fanaticism. It is is this fanaticism which poses a threat to the Gazan community, to others targeted by political fundamentalists and of course manifests itself from time to time the world over.

      The matters rest with civil society in Moslem countries and should be the focus of struggle between the forces of enlightened modernism and the medieval regressiveness of fanatical Islam.

      Commenter
      Clive
      Location
      Manly West
      Date and time
      April 24, 2013, 10:18AM
      • What Hamas is doing in relation to women's education is "indoctrination" not education, as the same curriculum is not taught to both boys and girls. It is setting up the girls to be subservient to the males according to the Quran.

        Before any smart a** says that same sex schools in the west do the same, be aware that we have a choice and we have identical curriculums, Hamas does not offer that choice to anyone, Christian/Buddhist/Muslim/Agnostic.

        The education Hamas is offering girls will not lead to their freedom.

        Commenter
        rob
        Date and time
        April 24, 2013, 10:29AM
        • Gender segregation is actually something that is starting to be looked at more often in Australian schools, too.
          Initially the calls seemed to be purely to stop all those rowdy boys from interrupting the poor girls trying to learn - which was fairly ridiculous, as any such incidents would be down to dealing with the individual responsible.

          But I think the idea has some merit, at least for some courses. Sex education is an obvious one, given that the curriculum would vary in key areas based on relevance.
          But even for other academic courses, it may assist students going through a volatile stage of sexual development to segragate that development from a key period of their academic development, and better address the two individually.

          Commenter
          Markus
          Location
          Canberra
          Date and time
          April 24, 2013, 10:30AM
          • You're making the assumption that the curriculum for girls and boys will be exactly the same (as it would be here in Australia). That's a huge assumption to make. And one, I think, in the future will be found to be incorrect.

            Commenter
            lauren
            Date and time
            April 24, 2013, 2:33PM
        • One of my regrets about life,apart from not unning away to live in LA at 18 is not doing what my parents wanted and going to Trinity or CBC ,but instead insisting on being modern and doing the coed thing.Iwouldnt recommend it.to anyone really.

          Commenter
          Kane
          Date and time
          April 24, 2013, 11:14AM
          • These 'rules'are made by barking mad fanatics

            Commenter
            barking mad
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            April 24, 2013, 11:16AM
            • I don't mean to demean the experiences of Palestinians but they do get an proportionally enormous amount of coverage and sympathy compared to other group experiencing a similar, and even worse plight around the world.

              The average life expectancy in Palestine in 75 years (72 for men, 77 for women). This is the same as Argentina, Croatia and Mexico which are all undoubtably well-off industrialised nations. Life expectancy is regarded to be one of the best objective indicators to measure overall quality of life and access to infrastructure and services.

              This pales in comparison to the embarrassing 10 year gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians men, for example, have the same life expectancy as men living in Benin or Rwanda. We are also the only developed country in the world where Indigenous children die from diseases that were eradicated everywhere else a long time ago. Palestinians themselves would probably be shocked by this.

              Palestinians also received the fourth highest amount of aid in the world in 2008, only beaten by Iraq, Afghanistan and Ethiopia but considerably more than that received by Sudan, Haiti and Congo - the latter is the poorest country in the world if you look at GDP (PPP) and Haiti isn't too far behind. They are also far from the only country in the world experiencing unjustified economic sanctions.

              I'm not saying that they shouldn't receive any media coverage but I think it should definitely be toned down a bit.

              Commenter
              Cimbom
              Location
              Real World
              Date and time
              April 24, 2013, 12:19PM
              • I don't believe your claim that the average life expectancy in Palestine is 75 years. Where do you get that figure from ?

                Although, you don't see many obese Palestinians.

                Commenter
                enno
                Location
                sydney
                Date and time
                April 24, 2013, 3:02PM
              • Palestinians are also required to live in an open prison, surrounded by the IDF.
                They are subject to group punishments , and an imbargo by the IDF.
                Most successfully commercial enterprises are soon ground out of existence by Israels belligerence- the Israelis like to keep the occupied territories desperately needy and dependant on Israel.
                That way Israel can monitor, intervene and rule all aspects of Palestinian life.

                Commenter
                LeftyRoy
                Location
                Cydnee
                Date and time
                April 24, 2013, 4:03PM

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