Palestine: the erosion of liberties

Several recent reports from Gaza suggest a steady erosion of personal liberties as Palestinian society retreats into supposedly “traditional” values.

Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights says there has been anoticeable increase in “honour” killings – the most recent case being that of a 27-year-old divorcee from Gaza whose father overheard her talking on the phone to an unrelated man andbeat her to death.

Fares Akram, writing for Xinhua news agency, describes acampaign by Hamas aimed “bringing the people back to their good morals and true religion". Officials tour Gaza city urging shopkeepers to remove posters showing celebrities and models, and replace them with posters supplied by Hamas. 

One such poster recommends seven satellite channels, including Hamas's own al-Aqsa television. Another shows Satan looking at a girl wearing a headscarf but with a tight shirt and pants:

"This is a 100 percent devilish dress," the man [from the religious affairs ministry] said about the clothes most of the Gazan girls wear. "Satan promoted to her that this is legal Islamic clothing."

Clothing shops are also urged to remove dummies used for displaying clothes "because they look like a human body that only lacks soul," according to one of the campaign's field team.

Hamas insists its campaign is "amicable, based on advice and peaceful guidance" but in Gaza its “advice” can be difficult to resist, and the owner of one clothes shop told Akram officials had come to his shop earlier and forcibly removed the dummies.

There are also stories of Hamas police harassing people on the beach for “un-Islamic” behaviour.

Last week, Gaza’s most senior judge, Abdul-Raouf Halabi, issued an order that female lawyers must in future cover their hair when appearing in court. Seven Palestinian human rights organisations, together with the Palestinian Bar Association, have condemned the move as unconstitutional

Courtroom dress codes apply in many countries but Halabi’s new code was clearly based on his own religious views. He told the Associated Press: "Showing a woman's hair is forbidden [in Islam]. We will not allow people to corrupt morals. This (dress code) will improve work in the courts."

Most of the 150 registered female lawyers already cover their hair but about 10 do not. AP quotes Subhiya Juma, a lawyer who does not wear a headscarf, as saying that the point isn't the number of women affected, but the freedoms that are being eroded: "This is dangerous – it's a clear violation of the law, it is taking away our personal freedoms – and by whom? The very person who is meant to defend our freedoms."

Enforcement of hijab is spreading in other areas too. One girls' secondary school in Gaza has made headscarves and loose-fitting robes compulsory uniform for the coming school year.

While it’s easy to accuse Hamas of trying to impose its views, this also seems to reflect a more general trend in Palestinian society. 
CNN notes:

Maha Abu Dayyeh Shamas, the director for the Jerusalem-based Women's Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, says the deterioration of rights for Palestinian women is not just a Hamas-inspired phenomenon.

She says rights for women and children in both Gaza and the West Bank are eroding. In societies suffering from long-term military conflict, Shamas said "religion and traditions become more important" and are frequently "used to oppress" and "women are generally the first victims."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 August 2009