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Gaza's male hairdressers: Time to cut and run?

Hatem al-Ghoul, Gaza hairdresser
Hatem al-Ghoul does not know who attacked his salon with small bombs - twice

By Jon Donnison
BBC News, Gaza

"Maybe I will emigrate to Somalia or Afghanistan," says hairdresser Adnan Barakat with a wry smile. "There's no life for me in Gaza."

Mr Barakat is one of only five or six male hairdressers in the Gaza Strip who cut women's hair.

He has been serving female clients at his small salon in Gaza City for more than 25 years.

But he worries Hamas's new policy banning men from cutting women's hair could put an end to that.

"If they come and shut me down, I will just be left to sit at home and watch TV like all the other unemployed people with no life," he says.

Unemployment is about 40% in the blockaded Gaza Strip, according to the United Nations.

Tinted windows

Mr Barakat's shop has tinted windows and curtains so you can not see in, giving it a slightly seedy feel. Apart from him, men are not allowed in when women are there.

We wait outside until all the women customers have left. Inside, it is not seedy at all - just an ordinary hair salon complete with mirrors, dryers and dated glossy photos of 1980s Western women with big hair.

Nagham Mohanna, Gaza City resident
I don't think the decision will actually go ahead. Hamas are always making laws like this
Nagham Mohanna

Mr Barakat says a lot of his customers are foreigners, or from Gaza's Christian minority of about 3,000. Some of his clients are liberal Muslims.

But it is not a big market, with only three or four female customers a day.

Gaza's population is almost entirely Muslim and is generally regarded as more socially conservative than the West Bank.

Most women in the streets wear a headscarf, for reasons of religion and tradition - though the scarves come in a wide array of colours and styles.

In the main park in the city centre, I cannot find any women who would want a man to cut their hair.

Tradition

Naveen, in her 20s, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt with a brightly-coloured, sparkly head scarf, says it is "not about what Hamas says".

"It's about Islam and our traditions. Men don't cut women's hair. It's normal here."

In that respect, the new Hamas policy seems to be in line with many people's views.

Adnan Barakat, Gaza hairdresser
Adnan Barakat's salon has mirror-glass windows so no-one can see in

Ehab al-Hussein, a spokesman for the Hamas interior ministry, is reluctant to even talk about the issue.

"The Western media is obsessed with stories like this," he says. "This is not a big deal here. It's a social thing. It's tradition."

So why bother at all - given that there are so few hairdressers in question?

"We have had a lot of problems with families who don't want their female relatives having their hair cut by men," Mr Hussein says.

Attacks

Some such hairdressers have actually been attacked.

"They came twice in the middle of the night and blew up my salon with small bombs, once in 2007 and once in 2008," says Hatem al-Ghoul.

Mr Ghoul, also Muslim, does not know who was behind the attacks, though some in Gaza suspect extremist Islamic groups who consider Hamas to be too liberal.

Mohammed, assistant in Gaza hairdresser
Mr Ghoul's assistant was not sure about letting another man cut his wife's hair

Mr Hussein admitted there had been attacks on hairdressers by "extremist individuals", but, he added, not just on salons where men cut women's hair.

There have been suggestions Hamas may have introduced the new hairdresser law to try to stem criticism from more hard-line Islamist groups.

"This is not true at all," says Ehab al-Hussein. "This has nothing to do with extremist groups."

Uncertain future

Hamas has already tried to introduce new rules to oblige female lawyers to cover their hair in court and to make high-school girls wear long dresses.

But they have been enforced patchily.

Another young woman, Nagham Mohanna, 24, from Gaza City, doubted the hairdressing restrictions would be enforced.

"I don't think the decision will actually go ahead. Hamas are always making laws like this," she said.

So far none of the hairdressers who cut women's hair have actually been shut down.

But the future of hairdressers like Mr Barakat and Mr Ghoul seems uncertain given the low level of demand.

Nevertheless, says Mr Ghoul, "women should have the right to choose - it shouldn't be up to Hamas".

I ask his assistant Mohammed whether he would want another man to cut his wife's hair.

He smiles. There's a long pause.

"Yes… if he was a good hairdresser and a good man. But why would she need to when she has me?" Mohammed asks.



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