The Hamas-run Sharia Judicial Council in the Gaza Strip has ruled that women require the permission of a male guardian to travel, further restricting movement in and out of the territory that has been sealed off from the world for more than 15 years by both Israel and Egypt.

The Islamic court issued a notice on February 14 declaring that an unmarried woman may not travel without the permission of her “guardian,” typically her father or another male relative, but then water-downed its language two days later after sparking a backlash from human rights organizations.

The updated ruling allows a male guardian to apply for a permit to prevent an unmarried woman from traveling if he believes the travel threatens to inflict “absolute harm” upon her, but, as observed by Human Rights Watch, the definition of “absolute harm” can be interpreted broadly and in ways that reflect discriminatory and patriarchal attitudes against women.

In an interview with Omar Baddar – a Palestinian American human rights activist and former Deputy Director of the Arab American Institute – I asked how he felt about this sudden and unexpected move by Hamas. Indeed, until now, the organization has refrained from imposing the kind of ultraconservative laws found in Saudi Arabia or Iran.

Baddar described the court’s regressive decision on male guardianship as “another blow to women’s freedom in a society already oppressed by Israel’s suffocating siege, which has made life miserable in the Gaza Strip.”

“The Palestinian people have been struggling against Israeli ethnic cleansing, occupation, and apartheid for decades, and the role of Palestinian authorities should be to show leadership in that struggle for liberation, not compound Israeli oppression with further restrictions on Palestinian freedom—in this case, the freedom of Palestinian women,” said Baddar.

“The role of Palestinian authorities should be to show leadership in [the] struggle for liberation, not compound Israeli oppression with further restrictions on Palestinian freedom . . .”

Rula Jebreal, a Palestinian American foreign policy analyst, told me the move by Hamas leaves ordinary Palestinian people fighting for their human rights on “multiple fronts,” including “Israel’s occupation, the indifference of the international community, and Hamas’ repressive agenda,” which she described as a “scarecrow that Netanyahu uses to enshrine his ethnic religious project of exclusion and apartheid.”

When I echoed these comments to Dr. Basem Naim, head of Hamas’ Council on International Relations, he denied the accusations. Dr. Naim stated the ruling has “nothing to do with Hamas.” He called the Sharia Judiciary Council “an official body for the whole of Palestine, tasked with familial questions and disputes,” one accredited by Palestinian constitutional law and executive Palestinian laws and as such Dr. Naim believes the ruling “must be read within this context.”

Speaking to the revised February 16 ruling, rather than the original version handed down two days earlier, which had clearly mandated single women to travel with a male guardian, Dr. Naim rebuffed suggestions the later ruling is discriminatory against women. “The decision is talking about both sides, men and women, at the same level, without discrimination,” he argued.

More specifically, “The decision is talking about parental disputes, when they are separated and have children,” said Dr. Naim. “The ruling states that both men and women aren’t allowed to travel abroad if there is a judiciary sentence against either one of them in regard to custody.”

Again, Dr. Naim’s comments speak to the amended ruling, a revision clearly driven by the global backlash provoked by the Islamic court’s original edict, suggesting that Hamas believes it had made a miscalculation. The move was likely motivated with an eye to the legislative elections to be held on May 22 – the first since January 2006, when Hamas won – and the presidential and Palestinian National Council elections to be held on July 31.

 Gazan women remain shocked and dismayed by the ruling.

That said, Gazan women remain shocked and dismayed by the ruling. A wife and mother of two young children, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, told me she’s “devastated by the recent decision but waiting for this nightmare to be called off somehow.”

“The problem is that Gaza is so closed and those making decisions are those who never reach beyond the Gaza fence and who don’t believe women have a role in our society beyond raising children and working from home. However, I am hopeful that the many educated of us are standing against such moves. Still, Gaza is not open for us to see how this is applied. But it worries me and [sends] a message that young women must leave Gaza,” she added.

Human rights groups have accused Hamas of curtailing women’s rights in Gaza since taking power in the Palestinian territory in the 2006 elections, including mandating the wearing of Islamic headscarfs in government buildings, schools, and courts.

“It’s bad enough that Israeli and Egyptian policies have trapped Palestinians in Gaza for far too many years,” observes Human Rights Watch. “Now Gaza’s Supreme Judicial Council is imposing rules that further restrict the few women who can leave. The Supreme Judicial Council should be supporting women’s autonomy and equality, not setting them back. It should withdraw its notice and ensure men and women can travel without discriminatory restrictions.”

That Hamas has taken a backward step on the ruling in the face of local and global backlash does suggest, however, the Palestinian group is embracing some democratic norms, albeit gradually and incrementally. The outcome and aftermath of the coming elections will tell a fuller story.



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