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.

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."

In UNRWA schools, as Mezher says, the law will change little. Some say Hamas pressure has already forced UNRWA to turn a blind eye to the increasing influence of the Islamists on its supposedly impartial and apolitical institutions. Local UNRWA staffers would not comment on the record about whether Hamas influences their agency, and a report issued by international UN staff members following recent teachers union elections found no political party involvement.

"UNRWA's teachers have a union that represents them all," says Abo Saada. "Unfortunately, it's widely known that this body is controlled by Hamas, which doesn't conceal its role at all. Instead, Hamas exercises its power undisturbed every two years when new union elections are held."

But there are areas of friction between UNRWA and Hamas. UNRWA provides activities like mixed folk dancing for boys and girls, and includes information about the Holocaust in its curriculum. The tensions between the two extend beyond education. In April UNRWA cancelled a fundraising marathon planned in Gaza after Hamas banned women from participating. Just as with the new education law, Gaza's cabinet sent the message that "we don't want women and men mixing (in the same race) and we don't want any women (running) uncovered."

Although UNRWA schools won't have to make many changes under the new law, the Strip's private schools will have to be restructured to comply with the gender segregation policy. Four of the 50 private schools in Gaza have accepted the law and will make the changes before the start of the new school year in September. The other private schools, most of which are Christian-run, are concerned about the impact of the new law on their pupils and the slow Hamas-led erosion of their independence.

"Educational scholars have stressed the need to separate boys and girls in school, as this benefits both sexes in terms of socialization and education," Wezher told Al-Monitor.

But Wezher's argument skates over the problems faced by Gaza's private schools. Separating boys and girls will be a huge financial hit for the schools because they will need to build parallel facilities for boys and girls. Meanwhile, Christian schools feel that their values and ethics would be compromised if they were to comply with the law.

"If we enforce the new law, it will harm the values we believe in and that we try to share with our students. We teach our kids to live together in peace and to respect each other, no matter what religion or gender they are," says the religious principal of a mixed Christian school, who wanted to remain anonymous due to pressure from the Hamas authorities.

Two days after our visit, a Christian couple was set to hold their wedding reception in the schoolyard. "Look at our kids," the priest says. "Most of them are Muslim, half male and half female, and they are all working together to make flowery crosses as wedding decorations. This school is renowned not only for the high quality of its academic teaching but also for promoting acceptance of diversity. The Hamas government is stealing and corrupting our good intentions and, sadly, we are powerless to change that."

The priest says that Article 56 of the new education law is absurd. "Educational establishments, whether private or foreign, shall be granted a period of one year to take the necessary measures pursuant to legal requirements," it reads.

"Do they think a year will change anything?" he says, shrugging. "Hamas has already started to attack our center by threatening our employees and by trying to convince the Gaza Muslim inhabitants to not send their kids to our Christian school -- even though it's one of the best in the Strip. They can impose the mixed-gender ban anywhere but I won't submit this school, and its principles, to their segregationist will."

Many others in Gaza are casting doubt on the legitimacy of the new law. Hamas deputies who were in prison or in the West Bank, according to Abo Saada, relied on proxies who were instructed to vote on their behalf so that the law could be passed.

Any law to be enacted in Gaza or the West Bank should go through the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and be signed by the Palestinian president. But, because the education law was only ratified by the Hamas bloc within the PLC, with no regard for the necessary quorum, it's technically illegitimate.

As in Election Day in the Sabana, where the animals eventually regret electing the crocodile as their king, Gaza's population has started to lose faith in Hamas' promises and has become wary of the measures designed to Hamasize society in Gaza. The education law is only the latest manifestation of Hamas' attempts to retain its grip on power by quashing diversity within the Gaza Strip.