Many Muslim women in Gaza resent fundamentalists, but dare not object

August 05, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

GAZA CITY,ISRAELI-OCCUPIED GAZA STRIP — GAZA CITY, Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip -- The 32-year-old secretary is not dressed in a way that suggests great respect for Islamic tradition: black jeans, bright-green T-shirt, makeup and frosted hair. But looped loosely around her neck is a narrow, white head scarf, a grudging nod to the arbiters of God's will in Gaza.

"Today, I have no choice," she said bitterly when asked if women in the streets of East Jerusalem and the West Bank must cover their heads, too. "Here, they force us."

No woman here seems able to remember the precise day she realized that time had begun flowing backward for the women of Gaza.

When did their hair go under wraps when they were on the streets? When did trying to look pretty become an act of defiance against one's own people?

When did the stragglers begin feeling as if they'd better fall into line? Was it right to throw acid at women who didn't?

By the time women here thought to ask, it was already too late.

"If I try to round up 5,000 women to take off our scarves at the same time in Rimal Square here, it would never happen," said Amal, a secretary in an accounting firm. "To begin with, there's no way to get the 5,000 together. Because the first ones agreed to wear it, it meant that the rest of us had to wear it."

Shortly after the Palestinian uprising began in December 1987, the hejab became survival gear for women here. It is the traditional, loose Islamic dress, covering the woman to her wrists and ankles, with a scarf over her head.

Its sudden, compulsory use signaled women here that the uprising to liberate Palestine meant less for Palestinian women, at least in Gaza, where the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas is strongest. In the West Bank and much of East Jerusalem, Palestinian women do not feel compelled to cover their heads.

It is also a sign of the internal violence and fear that have aggravated the Israeli military occupation. Palestinian intellectuals only recently began speaking publicly against "interrogations" and summary executions by masked youths acting on their own in the name of the Palestinian intifada.

For the moment, the code has relaxed slightly. A 19-year-old Hamas member said some of the key Hamas activists who would help enforce the dress code are in Israeli prisons. But he explained how and why Hamas drove the women back to tradition, sometimes against their will.

"In the Koran, it says the women should not show their bodies, as they did during the Jahiliya period," said the young man, who would not give his name. The Jahiliya refers to pre-Islamic Arabia.

"We consider makeup and lipstick not an advancement, but a step backward," said another Hamas member. The group of half a dozen shabab, or young men, spoke to one another in the formal Arabic of the Koran.

The group's leader said women who resisted covering their heads were given up to five warnings. "Then we beat them up, throw vegetables and things at them."

He acknowledged that in the beginning, some women resisted, and Hamas followers threw acid at them. "We did it to the women who were swimming and doing promiscuous things on the beach. We threw firewater at them. We wanted to make an example of them.

"And I don't think it was too harsh," the young man added.

Religious elders appear to condone the use of violence.

"The first step is not the stones or fire in the face," said Imam Haydar Skeik. "They warn her. After that, if she doesn't listen, they will insult her. Then they will use force."

He said the Koran does not specify a punishment for a woman who does not cover her head. "Of course, there is force to defend the Shariah," or Islamic law, he said. "There should be."

Most women, however, did not require acid or flying vegetables to get them to fall into line. In a culture whose vocabulary is rich in words to describe fine shades of embarrassment, the demands of propriety and the threat of humiliation became powerful motivators.

Women's freedom -- as symbolized by being able to choose what to wear -- became an early and easy casualty of the intifada.

Hamas called for the head covering on religious grounds, but others -- not wanting to splinter the popular movement against the Israeli occupation -- found political reasons for women to cover up.

For the secular Palestinian factions, a ban on makeup and showing one's hair gave proof of solidarity with the intifada victims, a kind of moratorium on youth and beauty.

"If I was walking in the street and the soldiers were beating someone, it's an embarrassment for the man in the street if I look pretty," said Nahala, a 20-year-old teaching student. "Then it becomes a question of for whom am I dressing up."

Nahala said she had never been attacked or insulted before she covered her head.

"But I went shopping one day, and there was a woman who didn't cover her head," she recalled. "One of the guys spit on her. And he told her, 'If you want to show us your hair and your beauty, we don't need it.' "

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