BIRZEIT, West Bank (WOMENSENEWS)--Only Ghada Ewais' spirited brown eyes can be seen from the niqab, a full veil that covers her head and nearly all of her face. The fourth-year university student is among the few women on campus who wear this ultra-modest Islamic covering, which she says, brings her closer to Allah and to paradise.
But even Ewais believes no one has the right to obligate women to change their choice of dress or become more religious.
"Allah will punish us, or let us go to the paradise," said the 21-year-old English major during a break at Birzeit University near Ramallah in the West Bank. "This is not the work of Hamas."
Since Hamas' parliamentary victory in January, the Palestinian Islamist organization has faced intense international scrutiny. The United States and the European Union have cut off aid to the group arguing it must renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and accept previous agreements the Palestinians have made with Israel. Israel has also cut off all ties with the Hamas-led Palestinian government and is boycotting foreign diplomats who meet with Hamas officials.
Beneath those headline-grabbing events, however, a lower-volume debate goes on here about the Islamist organization's intentions toward women.
Is it only a matter of time before the Hamas-led government tries to impose the traditional Islamic veil or headscarf, close coffee shops where men and women mix freely, or demand separation of the sexes in all schools and universities?
Will the fundamentalist women who conducted a successful grassroots campaign that spurred women in their homes to vote and helped Hamas to their stunning victory become dominant while secular women are marginalized?
While Hamas officials say no, some women's rights activists worry about the movement's long-term influence and see hints of a more restrictive attitude in an increasing number of signs posted by Islamic organizations on Palestinian buses urging Muslim women to dress modestly and wear the veil.
Open Atmosphere in West Bank
Palestinian women are both veiled and unveiled and enjoy an atmosphere of greater openness, particularly in the West Bank, than women in many Arab countries.
"We are a secular community. Religion has never been a practice in our code of life," says Eileen Kuttab, director of the Institute of Women's Studies at Birzeit University. "Our lifestyle has been more of an open lifestyle."
Although domestic matters for Muslims such as divorce and inheritance are handled by Islamic courts, religious adherence is not strict. During Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, for instance, it's not unusual to see someone eating on the streets during the day in diverse cities like Ramallah.
Women make up 14 percent of the Palestinian labor force. While they mainly work in traditionally female fields such as teaching and as secretaries, some also work as police officers, judges and journalists, according to 2005 data from the government's Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
But women such as Kuttab and Rose Shomali, general director of the Women's Affairs Technical Committee, a Ramallah-based coalition of prominent Palestinian women's organizations, worry about their fate under the new Hamas-led government.
"We fear that this pluralism, this diversity of culture, this diversity of thought that gives space for dialogue and creativity and for development will not be there," said Shomali, who is a Christian.
Other activists, however, were more sanguine.
"It's not the strategy of Palestinian Islamists to impose any type of social code on women," said Islah Jad, a secular Muslim and an associate professor at Birzeit's Institute of Women's Studies. "They have enough political burden . . . that they wouldn't think to apply something that might bring on them more problems than support."
Hamas Says No Obligations
Hamas officials say they will not obligate women to wear a veil, or force other changes upon them. Instead, they talk of the importance of education, equal opportunities in employment, improving life under Israeli occupation and raising the standard of living of Palestinian women, 30 percent of whom lived in poverty in 2003-04, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
Islam does not force anyone to do anything against her will, says Muna Mansour of Nablus, who in January was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council on a Hamas ticket and wears the veil.
"It's a religion that gives women their rights and their freedom," said Mansour, whose husband was a popular Hamas leader assassinated by an Israeli air missile strike in 2001. "Among these rights is the women's right to work, to get an education, to her beliefs, political participation, choosing whom to marry, inheritance . . . We will use Islam to deliver those rights."
Sheikh Mohammed Abu Teir, who was elected as Hamas' No. 2 candidate on its electoral slate, agreed. "Women can do whatever they want," he told Women's eNews during an interview in his elegant East Jerusalem home. "Hamas is not holding swords."
But secular activists worry about the new minister of women's affairs, Maryam Salleh, an Islamist who will be working closely with Islamic women's groups.
"She will favor women Islamists, and she will also develop and promote the programs to convert women" to a more Islamic lifestyle, said Walid Salem, the Jerusalem director of Panorama: Palestinian Center for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development.
Similarly, with the rise of Islamist women, the voices of secular women could become more marginalized in political and social realms, Salem said.
Converting the Populace
At the Islamic University of Gaza, for instance, Salem said it is understood that unveiled women would not be hired to teach because they are not considered devout Muslims. Hamas might promote similar practices at other universities and schools. "They will not do that by force, but try to convert people to such positions," he said.
Today, personal status issues such as marriage and divorce are adjudicated under Sharia, or Islamic law, which some argue discriminates against women. For example, a Muslim man can marry more than one woman and when it comes to inheritance, a Muslim son usually receives double the share of his parents' wealth than that of a daughter. Hamas is expected to maintain such laws, Salem said.
On the other hand, Salem expects Hamas to ensure that Muslim women receive their rights to inheritance, which--even at half that of their brothers--are often denied entirely to Muslim women in villages and conservative areas such as Gaza, Hebron and the northern West Bank.
"What Hamas will be doing will be better than social practices that deprive them of their right of inheritance," Salem said.
Ewais, the Birzeit University student, believes Hamas might benefit women in very conservative Muslim families on several fronts.
Because it is an Islamist movement and is respected by many religious families, it could clarify women's many rights under Islam and encourage families to loosen unfair restrictions on women, such as forbidding daughters to choose their own husbands or hold a job.
"This is very wrong in our religion," said Ewais, who married a suitor of her choice earlier this month. "A woman has to choose her life."
Brenda Gazzar is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.
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