BUREIJ REFUGEE CAMP (Gaza): Ask Huda Naeem how she intends to use her influence as a newly elected MP for Hamas and she ticks off a list of wrongs done to women in the name of religion. Forced marriage, honour killings, low pay and girls being kept out of school are her priorities for change in the Palestinian parliament. That is when she is not preparing her 13-year-old son to die in the fight against Israel. “A lot of things need to change,” she said. “Women in Gaza and the West Bank should be given complete rights. Some women and girls are made to marry someone they don’t want to marry. This is not in our religion, it’s our tradition. In our religion, a woman has a right to choose.
“As a woman and an MP, there are areas I want to concentrate on but that does not mean we have forgotten our struggle for our homeland, and preparing our children to die when the homeland calls for it.” Mrs Naeem, a 37-year-old social worker at the Islamic University in Gaza City and a mother of four, is one of six women elected to parliament on the Hamas ticket in the Islamist party’s landslide victory last month.
Women played a crucial role in getting out the vote for Hamas, knocking on doors and often getting a sympathetic hearing. Hamas’s strategy to build political support through its social programmes — the provision of health clinics, nurseries and food for the poor — sealed the loyalty of many Palestinian women. “Women are closer to the problems of the society,” said Mrs Naeem. “They are the ones who feel the unemployment. They are the ones who have to look after the children when their husbands are in prison. They feel well treated by Hamas institutions. Now these women are looking to us, the women in parliament, to change other things.”
Shortly before the election, Hamas launched a women’s armed wing and pictured its members brandishing guns and rocket-propelled grenades in its campaign posters. But the women MPs say their priority is reform, not armed struggle. Jamila Shanti, a philosophy professor at the Islamic University who headed the list of Hamas’s women candidates, says the female activists agree on the need to tackle discrimination.
“Our first job is to correct this because this is not Islam,” she said. “We are going to show that women are not secondary, they are equal to men. Discrimination is not from Islam, it is from tradition. It may not be easy. Men may not agree.”
Attempts in the last parliament to change laws that impose stiff punishments on women who commit adultery while going easy on men and provide relatively light sentences for “honour killings” of women who are deemed to have disgraced the family, ran into the sand amid resistance from older secular MPs. Islah Jad, a lecturer in women’s studies at Birzeit University, says the party is at odds with itself over women’s rights.
“In 1999, they admitted for the first time that women are oppressed and they have a cause. The second step is to attempt to formulate a kind of vision but it’s very unstable. When family law was discussed they approved some reforms: that the age of marriage was 18 and that a woman can put any condition she wants in the marriage contract,” she said.
“But when it came to the penal code and the punishment for adultery, [the late Hamas spiritual leader] Sheikh Yassin said it was based on sharia law and shouldn’t be touched.” Many of the male leaders of Hamas favour the extension of sharia to cover civil as well as criminal codes. Some have said they want to segregate schools, others favour a ban on the sale of alcohol. They also want to see women dress in accordance with Islam.
Mrs Naeem says changes should come only after Hamas has taken time to explain the benefits of religious law. “Our sharia is great if it’s practised according to its values. It’s not like they say about only cutting off hands,” she said. “It’s not going to be forceful but anybody who believes in the religion has to be educated in it. At the end, what matters is fighting corruption, not what people wear.”
Then there is an issue unlike any other. The most controversial of the newly elected Hamas women is Miriam Farhat, known as the “Mother of Martyrs” after losing three sons fighting Israel. Her campaign video included a scene of her bidding a son goodbye before he died killing five people in a Jewish settlement. Mrs Farhat said later that she wished she had 100 sons to sacrifice as “shaheeds” — Muslims who die in a holy war.
Mrs Naeem, who named her youngest child after a Hamas leader assassinated by Israel, says there is nothing illegitimate about suicide bombers. “[The Israelis] bomb our neighbourhoods with high explosive. What kind of weapons do we have against F16s?” she asked. But would she encourage her own 16-year-old son to die killing Israelis? “Yes, as soon as his homeland calls for it. I am preparing him to be a shaheed,” she said. Backstory
Palestinian law regards all women as minors who need a close male relative’s permission to marry and, if married, a husband’s permission to travel. Women can earn half as much as men doing the same job and often find it much more difficult to find work. They are denied equal rights in inheritance, pensions and death benefits. Women who commit adultery are treated considerably more harshly in court than the men they sleep with.
Courts recognise the defence of family honour as an extenuating circumstance when men murder female relatives for becoming pregnant outside marriage, refusing an arranged marriage or affairs. Men who commit such murders are very rarely prosecuted.—Dawn/The Guardian News Service