Some Gazans cautiously test new social waters

June 04, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

GAZA, Gaza Strip -- What passes for a moral crisis here is often no more than a few inches off the hemlines of a dress.

Lately, fundamentalist Muslims have seen the evidence of this serious moral crisis in the Gaza Strip.

Ankles of Palestinian women suddenly are protruding from the long robes traditionally worn at shoe-length. More women are trading the somber black color for brighter dresses. A few even have dared to remove their scarves or go out in public in bluejeans.

"I am fed up with being told what to wear," said Tareed, 26. "I don't see anything wrong with my hair without a scarf."

The end of Israeli occupation in most of the Gaza Strip May 18 led to a celebratory mood and a blossoming of minor liberties.

But this does not sit well with stern Muslims, who saw the grim and joyless mood of the military occupation as neatly fitting their view of how life should be.

"We are talking about committing crimes against the Palestinian community," said Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahhar, a physician, Islamic teacher and reputed leader of Hamas, a fundamentalist Islamic group.

"Many girls are intending to go out dressed in an unacceptable manner. The dress should be according to our style of life here," he said.

Hamas issued a leaflet -- its traditional method of warning -- last week criticizing "people who are trying within a few days to go back to a life of putting on makeup, immorality and corruption."

It urged the newly arrived Palestinian police to accost those who "forget our morals" by such things as dancing in the streets, celebrating in the park or the seashore, or drinking wine.

Hamas is not just any social critic. Its members are willing to act on their views; whether with bombs and guns against the Israelis, or with a stick against a woman they consider improperly clothed.

"One day I was in the market with my mother. I had a [headdress] on, but I was wearing it a little bit back from my forehead," said Tareed, who did not want to be further identified. "This man in the white dress of Hamas, carrying a stick, came up to me and told me to put it on right.

"I wanted to beat him," said the feisty woman. "I told him if he was a real man to step closer to me, but he ran away."

Most women are not so bold. The Gaza Strip is a place where traditional Arab ways still hold strong, and women face social and family pressures to conform. Few are willing to be identified by family name.

"I hate this scarf," said Karima, 21. "My husband forces me to go out with it." As she shopped in Gaza City, her clothes showed the hint of rebellion: a modest pastel dress with a hem 8 inches off the floor, and a matching scarf revealing a glimpse of her hair.

Many willingly cover

Ninety-five percent of the Palestinians in Gaza are Muslim, and it would be wrong to suggest there is widespread resentment of Islamic fashion. Many women willingly wear a headdress pulled severely around their face, a black robe, and long black gloves to cover their hands.

But there is a graduation of views among the women that is slowly taking hold. Shopping with Karima was her mother-in-law, Siham, 48, wearing the traditional long black robe and a white scarf.

"I have five girls, all of them married," the older woman said. "Three of them are in Islamic uniform like me, and two of them don't go with the Islamic dress." She shrugged. "I tell them they have to dress like their husband wants them to dress."

Since the Israeli withdrawal, Gazans are cautiously testing the .. new social waters. Some are hoping the police brought by the secular Palestine Liberation Organization will protect them from extremist strictures.

Israelis and Palestinians both suppressed social life in the Gaza Strip during the last six years of the Palestinian "intifada," or uprising. Israeli soldiers imposed closures and curfews and broke up public gatherings. Groups like Hamas, in the name of the nationalist struggle, further forbade even private celebrations and ordered strikes and closures of their own.

On strike days or in the afternoon, the Gaza Strip could look eerily like a ghost town, the 1 million residents hidden behind locked and shuttered steel doors.

Streets come alive

Now, the ghost town has started to come alive. The curfew that for six years sent everyone home by 8 p.m. in the winter and 9 p.m. in the summer is gone, and the streets are alive at midnight with people enjoying the freedom.

Stores that closed sharply at 2 p.m. every day now stay open for business past midnight. Brides no longer hide their wedding dresses under black cloaks en route to the ceremony, and for the first time in years, wedding parties are festive and gay.

The beaches along the Gaza Strip, which could be among the most sparkling in the Mediterranean with a little grooming, have for years been deserted. Now they are now filled with people, many who had never been there before.

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