By Dr. Ahmed Yousef – Gaza
Since the creation of Hamas in 1987, its election through the Change and Reform bloc in 2006, and the failed Fatah-led coup attempt in 2007 that left it and its coalition partners governing the Gaza Strip, the topic of women and their role in Islam has been a popular subject for coverage in the western media outlets and by political opponents. It is also one of the least understood in Western societies, especially among those with very limited knowledge of Islam in particular and Arab and Muslim society more generally.
It is not uncommon to find many in the west who define all Arabs and Muslims as oppressive, repressive and backward. Do oppression, repression and backwardness exist in Arab and Muslim societies? Yes, of course, but it is not characteristic of or limited to all Arab and Muslim people or society. “Erroneous application [of Islam] and behavior that results from backwardness,” according to the head of the Hamas Political Bureau Khaled Meshaal, “does not come from the text and spirit of the Shari’a. Errors come from many customs, traditions and concepts which emanate from certain situations and specific environments.” Palestinian society is one of plurality, and openness to all religions, civilizations and cultures.
Recent claims circling the western media, articles, blogs and facebook regarding the Hamas government in Gaza include the following: Hamas seeks to force itself on the people; that the movement engages in a campaign of intimidation and “terror,” forcing many to sit at home and do nothing; that women are deprived of their basic rights such as strolling on the beach or smoking hooka in public, forced to wear the hijab, and prevented from going to male hair dressers; and, finally, that women are not permitted to take an active part in politics.
With the exception of taking part in politics, one could question the things cited as examples of Hamas’ deprivation of the basic rights of women. These basic rights cited by critics are not those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Furthermore, and according to the Women’s Unit of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, it is not Hamas, but the economic situation that is a hindrance in Gaza.
The illegal, unjust and criminal siege imposed by the Apartheid Entity and enforced by its complicit allies has imposed devastating burdens and unbearable conditions on all Gazans, not just women. Hamas is not forcing women to stay at home and do nothing. Are there some within Palestinian society that would prefer their wives to stay home to care for the house and family? Are there not some in western societies that also have similar preferences? Of course there are some preferences in both societies, but they do not characterize the majority and generalizations should not be based on a minority perspective. The economic situation of Gaza helps to better explain why some women that do not choose to but do stay home. Also, it is worth mentioning the percentage of female students in the Palestinian universities is considerably higher than the number of male students, e.g. in the Islamic University, the female students are about 62% of the total student body. If this reflects anything, it reflects how women are empowered and encouraged, by both family and the government, to pursue higher education and fulfill greatest balance among the workforce between the genders.
Unemployment for both Palestinian refugees and non-refugees in Gaza, according to UNRWA, has increased due to the imposed blockade. The blockade has restricted economic growth in the Strip. This is a problem that is experienced by all irrespective of gender. Yet there are gendered distinctions when looking at the numbers, with employment growth occurring among the females. Reports and statistics provided by international agencies such as UNRWA and the United Nations demonstrate that employment for women has improved, while it has declined for males.
According to UNRWA, the number of women (both refugees and non-refugees) active in the economy grew rapidly in 2008, constituting 15.8 percent of the total labor force and an increase of 10.4 percent from the previous year. The main areas of employment for Gaza’s women are in education and health. Employment positions held include, but not limited to, teachers, university lecturers, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, engineers, secretaries, journalists, broadcasters, and government. It should also be noted that some of the women once employed, who no longer hold positions are those that continue to receive salaries from the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. It was planned that almost quarter of a million students would be thrown into the streets after Fatah forced the teachers to stop working in Gaza schools in an attempt to topple the Hamas Government in Gaza. The policy of salary loss for any employee, who agrees to work for or is in any way affiliated with the Hamas Government in Gaza, is still in place. The positions vacated by these employees were replaced by others who were either independent or affiliated with the Change and Reform coalition bloc, which is not just comprised of Hamas.
Just this year some of those who decided to finally break from Ramallah’s policy sought a return to their previous jobs, which had since been filled. This led the western media and critics of the Hamas Government in Gaza to make claims that their policy was no different from their predecessor, implying that the favoritism and cronyism, which existed under the Fatah-led government in Gaza was also the name of the game for Hamas. How could the Hamas Government in Gaza oust the employees who filled positions vacated in protest? Would this be fair to those who sought to prevent chaos and disorder that would have ensued when the others vacated their positions? In the end, for Hamas, its coalition partners, and the Government in Gaza, it is not about who was right or wrong in the situation that occurred in 2007, but rather about forgiveness and how best to achieve order, security and unity in the Strip until there is Palestinian reconciliation.
Charges of oppression, suppression and repression of women by Hamas and the Government in Gaza are incorrect, misleading and seek to sow discord and division within society. For Hamas, women are an integral part of it, society and Islam. In Hamas women have played a distinctive role. They have roles in its organizational structure, and participate in operations, including resistance, charity, education, politics and media. Women candidates filled the lists of those on the Change and Reform bloc in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative elections; they played vital roles in the election campaigns; and, they have filled government positions. “Women,” according to the elected Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, “are the twin halves of men.” They are an integral part of Palestinian and Muslim society.
Hamas’ position is a moderate in that women are granted their authentic role, without breaking from Islamic principles, values and ethics, and at the same time. They are free from isolation, seclusion and marginalization. There is a gap, according to Haniyeh, between the true concept of Islam regarding women and their practical application. Discrimination and abuses occur within Palestinian society and Gaza, but this is not because of Islam or Hamas. It is due to the erroneous application and behavior that does not come from the texts or spirit of Islam. The role of Hamas and the Government in Gaza, therefore, is preserving and protecting civil society; guaranteeing the rights of minorities and respecting them in all aspects of society; maintaining security and order; promoting cultural dialogue; and, ensuring access to education for continued societal development.
Given the plurality and diversity of Palestinian society, a multitude of opinions exist, coexist and compete with one another for space. There is even ideological diversity in political movements and parties, including Hamas. The end result, however, is compromise and consensus among all members of society. This is because Islam requires policies that prevent chaos, disorder and division. Islam is about unity and brotherhood, and not the imposition of one’s view over that of another. Our religion and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, teach us when there is error in human conduct, even when committed by government officials and political leaders, we are to speak out against and make suggestions on how to correct such behavior. Humanity is not perfect and Palestinian society is not without its problems. Daily struggle to understand the imperfect nature of humanity, to correct our own individual actions in daily life, and to follow the path we are meant to on this Earth is what makes us stronger as an individual and as a society. Overtime, through dialogue, education, interaction and the attainment of knowledge, cultures and societies will evolve and backwardness that is contrary to the text and the spirit of the Shari’a will dissipate.
– Dr. Ahmed Yousef is the Deputy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Gaza, and the former senior Political Advisor to the Prime Minister. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.