(New York) - Hamas authorities in Gaza should suspend all orders that violate personal freedoms, including imposition of an Islamic dress code for female students, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch has received reports from Gaza residents that since the school year opened in late August, schools have been turning away female students for not wearing a headscarf or traditional gown, on the basis of new unofficial orders to schools from Hamas authorities. They are being told they must wear a jilbab, a long traditional gown, and a headscarf. Previously, the uniform typically required for female public school students was a long denim skirt and shirt. The new orders appear to have been issued without any legal basis.
"No one should be forced to wear religious clothing, including the headscarf, to receive an education" said Nadya Khalife, the women's rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. "These new orders are simply arbitrary."
The Center for Women's Legal Research and Consulting in Gaza reported that Hamas authorities have given orders to school administrators and teachers to pay attention to girls' dress, especially in secondary schools. The center's executive director, Zeinab Ghonaimy, told Human Rights Watch that a school administrator slapped one female student in front of her schoolmates for not wearing the jilbab.
"Physically assaulting students and humiliating them in front of their peers is simply unacceptable, whatever the reason, and especially to force them to wear certain religious clothing in violation of their religious freedom," said Khalife.
That these rules appear to target only female students suggests that they are discriminatory as well as a violation of religious freedom, Human Rights Watch said. It also is inconsistent with the Palestine Basic Law, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience, and expression. Asma Jahangir, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and her predecessor, Abdelfattah Amor, have both criticized rules that require the wearing of religious dress in public.
In July 2009, Hamas officials initiated what they called a "virtue" campaign, saying they were concerned about increasing "immoral" behavior in Gaza. A Gaza resident told Human Rights Watch that Hamas police questioned women seen socializing with men in public places to determine whether the men were close relatives. Another resident told Human Rights Watch that, on the night of July 9, Hamas police beat up three young men for swimming without shirts.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), describing the crackdown, said, "There are indicators of interference in people's personal lives." A Gaza resident said the "virtue" campaign appeared to have ended in late August, but Hamas has now shifted focus to a "virtuous" dress code for school girls.
Human Rights Watch has criticized the governments of Germany, France, and Turkey for violating religious freedoms by banning religious symbols in schools and denying Muslim women the right to choose to wear headscarves in schools and universities. By the same token, women and girls should be free not to wear religious dress. Amor, the former special rapporteur, urged that dress should not be the subject of political regulation. Jahangir, the current special rapporteur, said that the "use of coercive methods and sanctions applied to individuals who do not wish to wear religious dress or a specific symbol seen as sanctioned by religion" indicates "legislative and administrative actions which typically are incompatible with international human rights law".
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) guarantees people's rights to freedom of religion, including stating that "no one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his [or her] freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his [or her] choice." As the de facto governing power, Hamas has repeatedly committed itself to respect international human rights standards, including in March 2007 in the program of the National Unity Government.
"Women themselves, not the state, should decide what they wear," said Khalife. "Schools can mandate uniforms, but only if the rules are clearly set out in writing and are not arbitrary or disrespectful of students' freedom of religion."