Veilless in Gaza: A Besieged Minority

Two Palestinian girls read the Koran at a summer camp for the study of Islam's holy book organized by Hamas in Gaza City on 18 June 2011. (Photo: AFP - Mahmud Hams)

By: Doha Shams

Published Saturday, April 21, 2012

There is not much to smile about when subjected to siege, impoverishment, and a daily dose of depressing realities. But smiles appear readily on the faces of the female employees of the “studio” next door to the Palestinian interior ministry headquarters in Gaza, which makes its living by taking photos and copying documents for people who need to get official paperwork done.

Two girls peer from behind the top of a tall counter, which conceals them almost entirely from the view of customers. At a desk by the door sits a frowning man, who barely acknowledges my greeting: “marhaba.”

Not saying “Assalamu Aleikum” for “hello” marks you out as an outsider here. But I insist on using the non-religious “marhaba.”

That I am Arab, but not from here, is already obvious from my appearance. But “marhaba” places you beyond the patriarchal authority that asserts its control over the public sphere in general, and over women in particular, in the Gaza Strip. I never thought so much could be encapsulated in a “hello.”

I ignore the scowling co-worker, who gives me a quick angry glance. I am reminded of the Egyptian police officer at the Rafah crossing, who after flipping through the pages of my passport, looked up and said: “Can I ask you a personal question? Why are you wearing the hijab in the visa photo, but not now?” I smiled and explained that I wore a scarf at the time to cover my hairless head after undergoing treatment for cancer. That was enough to embarrass him into handing back the document, with the words “may God grant you recovery.”

Here, however, at the photo studio counter, the irate man asks no questions. One of the two female employees accompanies me to a small curtained-off room, camera in hand. So she’s a photographer, but strictly for ladies. I joke with her and we collude in laughter. The photos are for a permit that is missing from my papers. She suggests, her face brightened by an amused grin, that I apply for a residence permit for a full year. She shows me the photo, and when I dislike it she gladly takes others.

Once out of the photography studio, she returns to her place, controls her smile, and then disappears from view as she sits down behind her high counter.

Enforcing Hijab

“You can’t miss me, I’m the only woman in Gaza with my head uncovered,” I tell Umm Ibrahim Baroud when arranging a meeting by phone.

The woman known as the “adopted mother” of Arab prisoners in Israeli jails agrees to meet at the tent outside the Red Cross headquarters, where the sit-ins are usually held.

Along with her colleague Umm Jabr Washah, Umm Ibrahim and other women – such as those in the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) – resist pressure to impose the hijab on them by various means.

The older women do so by wearing the traditional Palestinian embroidered dresses with white headscarves. Their faces seem more cheerful. But it is rare to see young women with uncovered heads. Even some young Christian women wear a kind of beret that they gather their hair under when they go outdoors, especially in working class areas like the central square. Ironically, it makes them look like Jewish religious women.

In plush neighborhoods, where the wealthy live, only religious women need to wear the hijab. The dress code is imposed solely on the weak, in terms of class as well as gender.

It is among university students that resistance to social pressure to impose the hijab is most apparent. A group I met when I first arrived told me that even Christian female students admitted to Gaza’s Islamic University must not only cover their heads but are also required to wear the full-length “Islamic” gown, the jelbab.

Siham arrived at our appointment with her hair entirely covered by a woolly hat. This is her way of trying to retain some individuality in her appearance. By way of both commiseration and encouragement, I quip that woolly hats are “this year’s fashion.” But that does not placate her or her friends.

“Even these clothes are unacceptable at the university, on the grounds that they are not modest,” says Siham, with a mixture of derision and outrage. “For God’s sake, are my clothes not modest?” I look at her, wrapped in her heavy winter garments: a knee-length coat, scarves around her neck, trousers, boots, and that woolly hat on her head. “Someone tell me,” she pleads, “in what way are my clothes immodest?!”

I tell her she should ignore them. Her hijab-wearing friend – who is awaiting “release from captivity” via marriage to a young man living in Canada – quickly interjects: “Do you think they would leave her alone? Look what they did to a friend of ours. They beat her so badly they ruptured something, and she had to have an operation on her stomach.”

Who would do such a thing, beating up a university student because she does not wear the hijab?

“The niqab-wearing girls,” comes the reply.

When asked if there was a complaint filed against the assailants Siham replied: “She complained about them to the human rights society. Then the media took up the issue and it grew. She went back to classes without a hijab. But now nobody at the university talks to her...They have all kinds of ways of putting pressure on you. Not everyone is able to resist.”

And she reiterated: “What is the difference between my hat and the hijab? My parents are not religious anyway, or barely.”

Underground Hairdressers

Futoun would also rather not have to wear the hijab. Everything about her face, body and movements tells you that. But she reluctantly does so because it is a “job requirement.” You have to seem religious to get a job. This is another compromise that has to be made.

Over the phone, she had suggested that we meet in the afternoon, so that she could take me somewhere. She would not say where. I objected, saying I was here for work, not on a holiday. She urged me to come along, saying “this is work too, you won’t regret it.” But for some reason, I dug my heels in.

I wish I hadn’t. It turned out that she wanted to take me to a “coiffure.”

What, I asked, is so special about that?

“I couldn’t tell you on the phone, hairdressers for women are banned in Gaza.”

Why are they banned?

“They just are.”

How can the government prevent people from practising their trade?

“They made them sign documents pledging to stop working, although some still do in secret.”

How do they get away with it?

“They manage.”

Futoun would have taken me to one of two male-run women’s hairdressers that she knows. They continue to work in secret, under the guise of being merely the managers of their salons. Their clients do not betray them to the authorities – their cutting and styling skills are too highly valued.

I regret having missed the “coiffure.” Instead, I was at a cafe which I was told was unique in employing female waitresses – in hijab, of course.

The restaurant is called al-Deira, and I notice them when we enter. Two girls are dressed in khaki uniforms, unlike the male waiters, which gives them a strange military-like look. The staff here are not from Gaza but are mainly Egyptians, as “there is no hospitality schooling in Gaza,” I am told.

This is a meeting-place for Gaza’s high society. It offers a view of the sea, like all the restaurants, cafes, and hotels lined along the coastal road from Gaza City to the port. But the vista does not justify the insanely high prices, nor does the quality of the food. What the clientele appears to be paying for chiefly is the fact that women can keep their heads uncovered and smoke water-pipes, which only men can do elsewhere, and that foreigners feel unrestricted. The waitresses’ hijabs seem like an extra tourist attraction.

But the clients here too, especially the men, make a point of “averting their eyes” – as though having learned by heart the advice which the government gives to citizens who travel abroad. They behave as though they want to avoid being accused of one of two things: either looking for women, or spying.

The veiled waitresses earn less than US$200 per month, working daily until 4pm. “Six hundred shekels,” replies one woman when asked how much she makes. She says one of her colleagues resigned “mainly for financial reasons,” but also because she could not bear the gossip that her working as a waitress caused, despite her hijab. The woman leaves by the kitchen door after changing her clothes at the end of her shift. The lunch bill for two people is nearly 300 shekels, i.e. almost US$100.

The other waitress – who had been the friendlier of the two when serving us, cheerfully making wise-cracks – had also changed out of her uniform and hijab. She was going home from work dressed in full niqab.

Invisible Christians

Among the piles of trinkets being sold in a souvenir shop, there’s nothing distinctively Gazan that can be bought as a gift. There are the standard badges bearing maps of Palestine, the key of return, or images of the cartoon character Hanthala, and pieces of traditional embroidery.

I am struck by one item. There is an olive-wood key-ring depicting a cross and crescent – or rather a church and a mosque very clearly bearing the two symbols – alongside the words “Free Gaza” in English.

I wonder what the key-ring signifies in a territory controlled by Hamas? Is it just a cliched political symbol, like Hanthala and the black-and-white kufiyeh scarf? Or does it have specific local relevance? My experience of Lebanese political cliches – where crescents and crosses always embrace each other between civil wars – makes me suspect the latter.

The Christians have no voice here. They seem invisible. Is that because there are only a couple of thousand of them? I “discovered” that, to my shame, just prior to my trip. Colleagues laughed, noting that Gaza has one of the oldest Christian churches in existence. That is only natural. Gaza is in Palestine, the homeland of Jesus Christ.

“He’s not called ‘the Nazarene’ because he belonged to the Popular Nasserist Movement,” I used to joke to non-Arabs when they expressed surprise that there were any Christian Palestinians at all. Yet here was I, too, falling for the media image of an Islamic Palestine. That says a lot.

“We cannot speak to the press without the permission of the patriarch in Jerusalem,” says the head of the local Latin Church, George Hernandez. He says that it is not easy to get in touch with the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, Fouad Tawwal (the successor to Michel Sabbah, the church’s first ever Arab patriarch, a Palestinian with a record of involvement in the national struggle), making their job rather difficult.

More forthcoming was the congregation which gathered on Palm Sunday at Gaza’s Orthodox church – one of three in Gaza, along with the Baptist and Latin churches. Although they were willing to answer questions on the condition their real names weren’t used, their responses were still diplomatic.

“Most of the Christians, both here and in Ramallah, voted for Hamas” in the Palestinian general elections in January 2006, my friend tells me. It is hugely significant that Christians voted, not just for Muslims, but for an Islamist movement. That means they as a religious community overcame their fears of Islamization, and put national interests first by voting against the corruption of Fatah.

In other words, they voted not as a minority, but as citizens. So what did they gain?

Flora, who is busy plaiting palm fronds for children to carry in the Palm Sunday procession as their grandparents’ did, laments that the holiday will be sad this year, too. “There is no water for us to bathe in, and no electricity. We have to go and beg for water from the mosque so we can bathe the children.”

My Gazan photographer colleague knew nothing of these beautiful traditions. Flora tells him the story of Palm Sunday: “When the Messiah went to Jerusalem, there was great joy among the people, and they greeted him and broke off palm and olive branches to throw on the ground for him to walk on.”

Do Christians feel under pressure in Gaza? “No. We’re happy. Whatever the government orders, we do,” says George, diplomatically, “or as they want us to, at least. But we coexist. There has never been a dispute between us.”

The image of the key-ring comes to mind. Can they act freely in their own homes? Can they drink wine, for example? “We don’t have alcoholic drinks because they are banned,” says George. “We need to respect others, as our government says we should do. Drinks are banned, but anyway they are not necessary. When we return from travelling abroad they prevent us from bringing in alcohol, so we’ve learned not to.” I do not inquire about local production, which I am told exists.

Henna, a lady in her 70s, agrees that only by coming to church do Gaza Christians get any sense that it is now a holiday, but says that everyday life is “normal” as far as they are concerned. “There is no difference between us and the Muslims,” she says, her hands continuing to weave the palm fronds without interruption. “If you want to live, you need to acclimatize.”

Do Christian women experience any harassment for not wearing the hijab? She smiles slightly before replying. “Hamas as a government does not tell us to cover our heads or anything like that, but if you mean from someone on the street who might want to interfere and mouth off, then perhaps, yes. But from Hamas as a government, no.”

“We’re all the same under occupation. Israel prevents Christians just as much as Muslims from going to Jerusalem,” says pediatrician Nabil al-Sayegh.

But what about home-grown injustices?

He replies, with evident “patriotic” embarrassment, that there is a measure of discrimination. He says, “For example, as a doctor working at al-Shifa hospital, I was banned three years ago from attending births, because I am a Christian.”

When asked if this is because he is a Christian, or because he is a man, he affirms it has to do with his religion.

This begs the question of how Christian students are treated at universities. One young woman, Nevine, says that when she was a student she refused to go to the Islamic University because she did not want to wear the jelbab and headscarf. “That is about my personal freedom, but ‘they’ believe that the university is subject to Islamic sharia so all must wear the hijab. So I went to study at al-Quds Open University instead, because there is no pressure there on how you dress.”

But her Christian friend was forced to don the hijab to study at the Islamic University, because the course she wanted was not offered elsewhere in Gaza. Her parents did not want her to travel abroad to study and Israeli restrictions prevented her from attending a West Bank university.

Nevine says she also knows a Christian coroner who was barred from conducting post-mortems on Muslim women, on the grounds that non-Muslims are not allowed to see them uncovered.

The list of prohibitions continues and does not just apply to Christians but society at large. Smoking, for example, while not banned, is frowned upon for religious reasons in Gaza. Many shops do not stock cigarettes. “Even selling tobacco is shameful,” say Fatah supporters mockingly.

Alcohol is banned, of course, although foreigners are allowed to bring in a small quantity for their personal consumption.

Hamas has not learned the lesson of the elections that brought it to power. If new elections are held today, certainly those who have felt their personal freedoms restricted under Hamas rule will deny it their support. That does not necessarily mean they would vote for Fatah, though.

Before wondering for whom to cast their votes, they wonder whether the promised elections will take place at all.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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