Suggestion Hamas setting women back is an 'old notion'

The Hamas government says it employs more women than Fatah did.

gaza women 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
gaza women 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
In her year on the vice squad, Lt. Mariam al-Bursh has been on narcotics busts, interrogated male drug dealers and fought off a female assailant with her fists. The 27-year-old is one of 53 women serving in the 11,000-strong Hamas police force, established after the Islamic militants seized Gaza by force more than a year ago. Since taking power, Hamas has put some educated, motivated women in government jobs, promoted athletics for women, and boosted their presence on male-dominated TV. Hamas says it wants to recruit the best and brightest, regardless of gender, and improve women's status in Gaza's conservative society. But al-Bursh's working conditions show the limits of Hamas' tolerance. On drug busts, she is unarmed and wears a long blue-and-gray robe and head scarf that reveals only her blue eyes. When she interrogates a drug dealer, a male colleague must be present, because Muslim custom doesn't allow her to be alone with a strange man. No problem, says Al-Bursh - the measures are meant to protect her. "These limits are to the benefit of women. Not against them," she says. After Hamas violently routed the secular Fatah movement during last year's takeover, many feared the Islamic group, whose ultimate goal is to establish an Islamic state, would enforce a strict social code. Gaza does seem more conservative these days, but Hamas officials say it's happening by persuasion, not coercion. "We are in politics, in technology, in advanced studies. We are in parliament," said Jamila Shanti. The suggestion that Hamas is setting women back is an "old notion," she said. Shanti, 51, is one of six Hamas women elected to the 132-member Palestinian parliament. The Hamas government says it employs more women than Fatah did. Women students outnumber males at Gaza City's Islamic University. Several girls and women appear in a children's show and a woman's program on Hamas' Al Aqsa TV whose programming includes extolling the virtues of the head scarf and teaching viewers how to be good Muslims. But women's rights campaigners in Gaza claim these changes are misleading and that Hamas' long-term strategy is to restrict their rights. Activist Nadia Abu Nahla said it's impossible to get permits for women's rights demonstrations. "This democratic mobilization is not present," she said. "Women are afraid." When Fatah ruled Gaza, female police officers trained with male colleagues. Now it's a problem because the instructors are male. Hamas has had to fine-tune the dress code, allowing the female cops to have side slits in their robes to allow for easier movement while running. Al-Bursh can now wear pants under the robe. She says the dress code helps, because the robe gives her an air of authority and suspects can't identify her. Her conservative family, she says, has been assured by her bosses that there won't be any "unnecessary mixing" with men. At a recent drug bust, her job was to search the women, and she found marijuana seeds hidden in a suspect's bra. "We know the secrets of women," al-Bursh said. During her year of policing she gave birth to her fifth child and is back at work after maternity leave, saying she feels energized. In her office, after locking the door, and with no males present, she unveiled herself, showing a young pale face and a slight physique. Hamas, meanwhile, is trying various ways of adapting the Islamic dress code to modern life. Hamas supporters have opened a covered swimming pool in the town of Jebaliya, offering swimming classes to women wearing body-covering spandex suits. Previously, several pools offered women-only days, but devout women stayed away because the pools didn't have the religious seal of approval. "We now have an Islamic pool, and we can get comfortable," said Asma Abu Ward, 20. Still, some women privately say they are covering up for fear of harassment, rather than out of religious conviction. In Gaza, there's little public mingling of the sexes. Gaza City's Islamic University, for example, has separate campuses for men and women. In the more liberal West Bank, young men and women sit together in coffeehouses and restaurants without attracting attention. Hamas offers a police hot line for women who feel harassed, and publicly scolds those who give women without head scarves a hard time. But in some cases, vandals have sprayed graffiti on posters that show women's faces. Noha Shattat, a deputy director general in the Education Ministry, is one of a few Hamas women in senior government posts. The 50-year-old Ph.D holder wanted to teach at the Islamic University but her seniors rebuffed her, saying it would be a waste of resources because she could only teach girls. Male professors teach both sexes, but women are not allowed to teach male students. "The view that women ... can't lead can't be changed overnight, particularly among the Islamists," Shattat said with a shrug.