RAMALLAH, July 11 (JMCC) - Hamas officials have largely abandoned previous attempts to enforce conservative social norms in Gaza, reports
While orders banning women from smoking in public and male hairdressers from styling women's hair made news, today the rules have relaxed.
“At first, a few years ago, the [Hamas] police told me to never display a photograph or mannequin that reveals a woman’s body in the window,” Al Helou [a clothing store owner] said. His window display now features a mannequin clad in a white lace negligee. “But now, they’re not concerned.”
Hamas assumed power after routing rival Fatah forces in a series of bloody battles on the streets of Gaza in 2007. Following a period of diplomatic and economic isolation, Hamas is now also developing relations with more foreign nations.
“The girls feel more free to wear what they want now, and I believe this is against Islam,” said 28-year-old Abdullah Mohammed, a Gaza City perfume vendor.
“But I don’t think the government should get involved,” he said. “I want people to return to Islam, but it should come from their own personal convictions. Not the law.”
Mohammed was himself stopped by a Hamas policeman in 2009, when he was walking along the beach with his fiancée. He said stories of security forces harassing men and women, demanding to know the nature of their relationship, have all but disappeared.
And while Gaza is indeed largely conservative, and most women wear headscarves, the customs are mostly enforced informally by society and through the family.
More than 90 percent of Gaza’s 1.5 million people are Muslims, but the territory is also home to a minority group of Christians and secularists — as well as Muslims whom balk at government interference in personal or religious matters.
In the 1990s, under the secular-minded Fatah, Gaza’s coastline was peppered with bars and belly-dancing joints.
“They [Hamas] are hardliners, but they modified this initial push for Islamic law because of pressure from the masses,” said Eyad Sarraj, a 68-year-old Gazan psychiatrist and consultant to the Palestinian delegation at the 2000 Camp David peace summit.
“They came to these places — to restaurants — and they tried to make women stop smoking [nargileh],” he said. “They made the restaurant owners sign documents to say they wouldn’t serve shisha to women. And this caused a lot of problems.”
Now, there is even a smattering of female workers employed at some of the nargileh-serving cafes on the Gaza City shoreline — something that was unthinkable just a few years ago.
Still, in Gaza’s more conservative bastions — in the southernmost towns of Rafah and Khan Younis, for example — fundamentalist preachers make sporadic appearances on the beach in the summer months, promoting “virtue” and warning youth of the dangers of immodest behavior like smoking and playing cards.
The campaigns are not government-sponsored, but Hamas tends to tolerate the preaching in more conservative areas.
Many here speculate that Hamas made the advances to impose Islamic, or sharia, law in order to prove its Islamist credentials to a small but fierce movement of fundamentalist Salafis in Gaza, some of whom advocate violent struggle.