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Last Updated: Friday, 3 March 2006, 08:14 GMT
Women ponder future under Hamas
By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

Mariam Farhat (centre)
Mariam Farhat has lost three sons in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Among those on the Hamas benches in the new Palestinian parliament sits Mariam Farhat - also known as the "Mother of Martyrs".

Hers is a story of death and sacrifice that the militant group's faithful regard as a grim inspiration.

Her son Muhammad died during an attack on one of the settlements that the Israelis built after they occupied Gaza.

He was shot dead after killing five Israelis in a school for military and religious studies.

Before launching his attack the 17-year-old made a video in which his mother Mariam blessed his suicide mission.

Later she lost two more of her boys in confrontations with Israeli forces.

Visionary

Mrs Farhat has become for Hamas an iconic figure, a symbol of a willingness to fight Israel - no matter how great the cost.

But if you really want to know what the rise of Hamas and its formation of the new government might mean for Palestinian women, you need to talk to Jamila al-Shanti.

Jamila al-Shanti (L) and Mushir al-Masri (R)
Jamila al-Shanti wants to revive Islamic thought and heritage

She is the political visionary in the party's female ranks, and she was the third placed candidate on its national electoral list.

Ms Shanti talks of Hamas using the proper interpretation of Islam to push back boundaries for women, and draw them more into employment and social activity of all kinds.

"There are traditions here that say that a woman should take a secondary role - that she should be at the back," she says.

"But that is not Islam. Hamas will scrap many of these traditions. You will find women going out and participating," she explains.

"This doesn't mean that we will depart from Islamic law. People think that Islamic law is about being veiled, and closed and staying at home - but that's wrong. A woman can go out veiled and do all kinds of work without any problem."

Islamic heritage

And what does Hamas make of the lifestyles of more secular women - those who might like to go unveiled and spend an evening talking to friends of the opposite sex in cafes?

The great majority of Palestinians are Muslims, and many will be comfortable with talk of enhancing the influence of Islam

"These young people don't know about their Arab and Islamic civilisation," Ms Shanti says.

"This is because our education system very much lacks an Islamic basis," she adds.

"We will bring back Islamic thought and heritage through the media and through education. These people will come to understand their culture. But we will not seize their freedoms from them."

The great majority of Palestinians are Muslims, and many will be comfortable with talk of enhancing the influence of Islam. And particularly in more conservative Gaza, Hamas is moving very much with the prevailing social grain.

Secular concern

But of course there are significant numbers of women who have watched the party's rise with concern.

A woman walks past mannequins in Gaza
Many secular women believe Hamas will undermine their freedoms

Among them is a young civil servant called Hayeh, who is one of the tiny minority of women who go unveiled in Gaza.

"Where do I fit in this society as a Palestinian who comes from a liberal background?" she asks.

"Hamas people say that they're not going to harass anyone - that they're not going to impose anything, that they're not going to impose a certain dress code or veils or whatever.

"But it will come indirectly. Discrimination doesn't have to be direct - it can be indirect.

"For instance if I'm working in a ministry where my boss is from a conservative background he might not allow me to be promoted.

"At university I might be discriminated against because I'm not wearing the cover."

Male consent

Lama Hourani campaigns for the rights of working women in Gaza. She agrees that Hamas won't resort to law to impose its ideas.

This is the main issue: they don't look at men and women as equal - when they educate women they always say that she has to obey the male in the family
Lama Hourani

But she says that an atmosphere will be created under Hamas that will undermine the freedoms currently enjoyed by more secular women.

She says she has already noticed that in the street young men seem to feel freer now to tell her that she should have her head covered.

Mrs Hourani says that no matter how much Hamas may talk of plans to draw more women into employment and wider society, there is, in her view, a fundamental problem.

She says that, in the way Hamas presents Islam, the liberties of a woman are always subject to the consent of a male relative.

"This is the main issue. They don't look at men and women as equal. When they educate women they always say that she has to obey the male in the family," she says.

"When she wants to get married one of things they teach her is to obey her husband. If she wants to go to work she has to take his permission."


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