Under Hamas, No More Coed Classes in Gaza

The latest sign of the 'Hamisization' of the Strip
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Teachers stand among school girls at al-Qahera school in Gaza City on April 2, 2013. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

A community of animals elects its new king. The candidates are a wily green crocodile who makes grandiose promises and a yellow lion whose father was the previous king. In the end, the lion is too confident that he will win and loses the elections to the mendacious crocodile. An Election Day in the Sabana is a children's book that has disappeared from Gaza's libraries over the past few years. Given the crocodile's demise at the close of the book, it's unsurprising that Gaza's Hamas government seems unable to appreciate the story.

Removing the tale of the crocodile's rise and fall from the curriculum is just one part of Hamas' recent efforts to consolidate its power over education in the Gaza Strip. Although the group came to power in 2006 through elections widely acknowledged as democratic, its recent infiltration of Gaza's institutions has been anything but free and fair.

The education law is only the latest manifestation of Hamas' attempts to retain its grip on power by quashing diversity within the Gaza Strip.

In early April the Gaza-based Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) voted in Educational Law No. 1/2013, provoking debate because the law was only ratified by members of Hamas' Change and Reform bloc, which did not actually have a legal majority in the Council. The new law will come into force at the beginning of the next school year, and contains two particularly controversial articles.

Article 42 mandates gender segregation in all Gazan schools, stipulating that "boys and girls must be in separate classes in educational institutions after the age of nine." Under Article 47 of the new law, men will be banned from teaching at girls' schools. Gaza's universities are already segregated by gender, but the new law means that these policies will be implemented in all primary, secondary, and private schools.

Not all of Hamas' members approve of the new law. "There are still people that are against segregating education by gender. I am not actually in favor of segregation, but I don't have the power to challenge the changes our government is trying to make," says Ahmed Youssef, senior political advisor to Gaza's prime minister.

Fearful of losing control over an increasingly disillusioned population as the rift between Hamas and Fatah widens, the conservative wing of the party is pushing for the Islamization of Gaza. The peculiar political topography of the Strip, however, means that this process doesn't fit within the Islamist trend across the Middle East; as Hamas is working on infiltrating its members in all the Strip's institutions, it's Hamasization, rather than Islamization.

The new law will apply across Gaza's 693 schools, which serve 468,653 students. These are divided in 398 public schools, 245 run by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), and 50 private schools.

"They already control us in every possible way," says Nabila, a former teacher and current student at the public Aqsa University. "They monitor when we talk to our male colleagues and they humiliate us if we don't dress in the way they want us to. Some young boys have had their heads shaved, while some girls' dresses have been spray-painted black."

"They don't want exchanges to happen between men and women, between female and male teachers. They are planning to erect walls to separate them," says Mukhaimer Abo Saada, a political analyst and a professor at Azhar University, a semi-public institution.

The law is not actually changing the curricula, which will still be determined by a joint commission of experts from Gaza and the West Bank.

The biggest change, Saada says, will be the direct and indirect control exerted by Hamas' police over schools and universities. In Azhar University women can still choose whether or not to wear the hijab and can dress however they like. However, a student was killed on the campus in a dispute between families eighteen months ago, and the university gates are now guarded by the Hamas police.

This is nothing new. Hamas has been extending its control of educational institutes since coming to power in 2007. In the same year several Fatah-affiliated headmasters and teachers were fired, and the Fatah-led teachers' union organized a strike. The Hamas government responded by replacing highly skilled Fatah teachers with poorly-qualified Hamas employees, and because Hamas employees are now a majority within governmental schools, a union representing teachers from other factions would be pointless.

"I am scared that under the new law, the Hamas police will put more pressure on the students and the professors. We already have internal security in civilian clothes reporting to Hamas on the university campus, so we have to be careful and censor ourselves over even the smallest things," another professor says. "If a girl wants to come to my office and discuss something, for example, she can do it but we have to keep the door open."

In Gaza's governmental schools, mixed-gender education has been banned since the early days of Hamas' rule, so the law's impact, according to Walid Mezher, legal advisor to the Ministry of Education, will be minimal. "Even in the schools run by UNRWA and not by our government," he told Al-Jazeera, "the two genders are already separated based on Palestinian traditions. The difference now is that this will be law and not merely social tradition."

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Costanza Spocci and Eleanora Vio

Costanza Spocci and Eleanora Vio are freelance journalists living in Egypt. 

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