(Gaza) - Police operating under the Hamas administration in Gaza should stop threatening male hairdressers who cut women's hair and forcing them to sign pledges to stop working, Human Rights Watch said today. Such attempts to stop hairdressers from working on the basis that their work violates "Islamic morality" have no basis in law and are therefore arbitrary, Human Rights Watch said.
Hamas authorities should discipline officers involved in the harassment, compensate the hairdressers for lost work, and publicly instruct police to protect the hairdressers' businesses from threats by armed groups, Human Rights Watch said.
"Police in Gaza should be protecting residents, not arbitrarily harassing people for absurd unwritten offenses like men cutting women's hair," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Instead of allowing police to flout the law, it should punish police who exceed their authority."
Hamas authorities have not enacted legislation banning men from working as hairdressers, but in March 2010 a statement on the police force's website announced the ban "following instructions from Interior Minister Fathi Hammad." Until now the ban had not been enforced.
Human Rights Watch interviewed one of the hairdressers, Hatem Medhat al-Ghoul, 34. Al-Ghoul said that employees at his Gaza City hair salon told him that two policemen on a motorcycle arrived at the salon at 10 a.m. on February 19, 2011, and delivered a summons for him to appear at the police station. When his employees called to tell him, he called four other male hairdressers in Gaza to ask if they had received a similar summons.
"We had all been summoned, and we decided to go together to the al-Abbas police station at noon," al-Ghoul told Human Rights Watch. "We waited for half an hour and were interrogated individually. When I entered the interrogation room I saw a blindfolded man, not anyone I knew, who was standing on one leg," he said. "I was anxious about why they wanted to make us see him."
The blindfolded man may have been subjected to shabeh, a form of torture in which detainees are forced to stand or sit in painful positions for long periods, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch has documented cases of shabeh perpetrated by Hamas security forces. Reports by Palestinian human rights organizations say the practice is common.
Police told the summoned hairdressers to sign the same four-part pledge, al-Ghoul said: to respect the "morals of society," to obey the law, to appear at any time when summoned by police, and to stop working as a hairdresser and not to go to his salon for any purpose on pain of a 20,000 shekel fine (US $5,450). Al-Ghoul said that the first three points were printed out on a standard form, but that the last point of the pledge was hand-written.
"I asked them, how can I be sure that this is legal, since you wrote it?" al-Goul said. "The police said they modified the fourth part depending on the job (of the person signing the pledge)...Initially I refused to commit to my own unemployment, but the police said they would put me in jail until I signed."
He said police told him that the procedure was ordered by the Minister of Interior because the hairdressers had to "commit to uphold Islamic morality." He had not returned to work since the incident, he said.
Al-Ghoul's hair salon was bombed twice, in 2007 and 2008. Hamas authorities have blamed extremist Islamist groups for similar bombings over the past three years. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any steps by Hamas authorities to apprehend or prosecute anyone for the bombings, although Hamas authorities have violently clashed with such groups on several occasions. Twenty-one people were killed in a Hamas raid on a mosque in Rafah in August 2009 where one group, Jund Ansar Allah, had proclaimed an "Islamic emirate."
As a political party, Hamas has publicly indicated on several occasions that it would respect international human rights norms. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights guarantees the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and obliges signatories to take appropriate steps to safeguard this right.
Human Rights Watch has condemned abuses by Hamas police against people arbitrarily accused of "morality offenses" that have not been enacted into law.