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Gaza: Rescind Religious Dress Code for Girls

Hamas’s Unofficial Orders for ‘Islamic’ Dress Curtail Personal Freedom


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."

Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.