Gaza policewomen walk fine cultural line

Sunday, August 24, 2008

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- In her year on the vice squad, Lt. Mariam al-Bursh has been on narcotics busts, interrogated male drug dealers and fought off a female assailant with her fists.

The 27-year-old is one of 53 women serving in the 11,000-strong Hamas police force, established after the Islamic militants seized Gaza by force more than a year ago.

Since taking power, Hamas has put some educated, motivated women in government jobs, promoted athletics for women and boosted their presence on male-dominated TV.

Hamas says it wants to recruit the best and brightest, regardless of gender, and improve women's status in Gaza's conservative society. But al-Bursh's working conditions show the limits of Hamas' tolerance.

On drug busts, she is unarmed and wears a long robe and head scarf that reveals only her eyes. When she interrogates a drug dealer, a male colleague must be present, because Muslim custom doesn't allow her to be alone with a strange man.

No problem, says Al-Bursh -- the measures are meant to protect her. "These limits are to the benefit of women. Not against them," she said.

After Hamas routed the secular Fatah movement during last year's takeover, many feared the group, whose ultimate goal is to establish an Islamic state, would enforce a strict social code.

Gaza does seem more conservative these days, but Hamas officials say it's happening by persuasion, not coercion.

"We are in politics, in technology, in advanced studies. We are in parliament," said Jamila Shanti. The suggestion that Hamas is setting women back is an "old notion," she said.

Shanti, 51, is one of six Hamas women elected to the 132-member Palestinian parliament.

The Hamas government says it employs more women than Fatah did. Women students outnumber males at Gaza City's Islamic University.

But women's rights campaigners in Gaza claim these changes are misleading and that Hamas' long-term strategy is to restrict their rights.

Activist Nadia Abu Nahla said it's impossible to get permits for women's rights demonstrations. "This democratic mobilization is not present," she said. "Women are afraid."

Noha Shattat, a deputy director general in the Education Ministry, is one of a few Hamas women in senior government posts.

The 50-year-old Ph.D. holder wanted to teach at the Islamic University but her seniors rebuffed her, saying it would be a waste of resources because she could only teach girls. Male professors teach both sexes, but women are not allowed to teach male students.

"The view that women ... can't lead can't be changed overnight, particularly among the Islamists," Shattat said.

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