Women’s rights ‘deteriorating’ in Gaza; gays, Christians also suffer
by Linda Gradstein
Special to Justice for Gaza
Fatma Ashour is not typical of women in Gaza. At 32, she is single and a lawyer with her own office. Ashur, who wears the traditional Islamic headscarf, says it is not easy to be a woman in Gaza and describes a pattern of discrimination and even violence against women.
“If I walk down the street and I am wearing pants instead of the traditional dress, men will call me a prostitute,” Ashur, who grew up in the more liberal Egypt, said ruefully. “I can’t do a lot of things that I want to. I can’t go swimming. I can’t ride a bicycle. I can’t smoke a water pipe in a restaurant. I can’t even walk with a male colleague.”
Last year, Gaza’s Islamist Hamas rulers announced that female lawyers must wear the headscarf and traditional dress known as the jilbab to appear in court. Ashour stayed home for three months in protest. Eventually, Hamas repealed the ban, but other directives, like making it illegal for women to smoke a water pipe in public, remain in force.
Gaza is a traditional society, and only an estimated 11-13 percent of women work outside the home, according to Khalil Shaheen, the director of the economic and social welfare department at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights or PCHR.
“Women’s rights are deteriorating day by day and there is growing violence against women,” he said. “There is a culture of fear in Gaza.”
Islamic law, which is enforced in custody cases in Gaza, mandates that fathers are given custody for boys older than age 7 and girls older than 9. If a divorced woman remarries, she must immediately give up her children, regardless of their age. These laws, combined with women’s lack of independent financial resources often keep women in unhappy marriages. Shaheen says Gaza mental health centers are reporting more cases of verbal and physical abuse of women.
Violence has increased as unemployment and poverty have grown. Unemployment stands at 45 percent, one of the highest in the world, and an estimated 1 million of Gaza’s 1.5 million people are dependent on food aid from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to survive.
Women marry young in Gaza, in their late teens or early 20s, and often have large families despite their poverty. All of these factors conspire to keep women in traditional roles.
The situation is even worse for gays in Gaza. Homosexuality is illegal and has been prosecuted. In April, a militant group in Gaza kidnapped and killed Italian civil rights activist Vittorio Arrigoni. Several press reports said that one reason for his death was that Arrigoni was openly gay and living with a partner in Gaza.
Mental health professionals in Gaza say there are no reliable statistics on homosexuals in Gaza as the social taboo is too strong and homosexuals are afraid of being arrested.
Numbering about 2,000 in Gaza, Christians, too, face difficulties. Legally, their right
to worship is protected, but any suspected missionary activity has been harshly stopped. In 2007, Rami Ayyad, the Baptist owner of a Gaza bookstore was killed after his bookstore was firebombed. Islamic extremists took responsibility and accused him of missionary activity.
Most Christians in Gaza are Greek Orthodox. They see themselves as an integral part of the Palestinian nation. Some have complained they are uncomfortable with Hamas’s directives against women and feel social pressure to wear the veil, even though they are not Muslims.
Linda Gradstein is a longtime reporter for NPR and contributor to the
Washington Post, the Toronto Star and AOL News.