Gaza schools expel girls for leaving hair uncovered
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Gaza schools expel girls for leaving hair uncovered

‘Are you a Christian?’ one principal asks a student who showed up without a headscarf to the new school year

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Female students in a classroom in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, March 2009 [Abed Abed/Flash90]
Female students in a classroom in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, March 2009 [Abed Abed/Flash90]

A number of high schools in Gaza have punished female students for refusing to wear traditional Islamic headscarves, Huffington Post Arabic reported on Wednesday.

According to the report, despite the fact that the Palestinian education ministry has issued no official directive banning unveiled students from school, at the start of the new school year individual principals have shamed and even expelled students for refusing to wear the traditional headgear.

“I was happy to begin the new school year, and was preparing for the first day of school like any other student,” said Marah Nashwan, an 11th grader at the Ahmad Shawqi girls high school in Gaza city. “When I entered the school, I was surprised to encounter three teachers asking about my veil. I told them that I do not wear one.”

Nashwan was taken to the office of the principal, who threatened to ban her from school as long as she does not wear a veil. Her father, Karem, told The Huffington Post that his daughter was suspended from school for three days, only to find upon her return that she was moved to a different school. Karem Nashwan complained about the “discriminatory” decision to the Independent Commission for Human Rights.

Society in Gaza, controlled by terror group Hamas since the summer of 2007, is generally more traditional than that of the West Bank. In 2009, Human Rights Watch accused Hamas of issuing “unofficial orders” to schools to turn away students who do not conform to the Islamic dress code. Female students were being told they must wear the long traditional gown known as jilbab, as well as the traditional headscarf, known as hijab.

Hamas has also imposed its modesty standards elsewhere in society, banning the display of lingerie in shop windows and forbidding women to smoke water pipes in public places. According to a Reuters report in 2010, the Islamic organization has also tried, unsuccessfully, to force female lawyers in court to wear the headscarf.

Palestinian school girls holds the flags of Palestine and the flag of Japan to show their solidarity with Japan in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, March 11, 2013 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian school girls holds the flags of Palestine and the flag of Japan to show their solidarity with Japan in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, March 11, 2013 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Samer Mousa, a legal adviser for the Gaza-based human rights group al-Dameer, said he had no doubt that it was individual schools rather than the government which were behind the new headscarf imposition. The move, he noted, has been implemented only in public schools, not in private schools or those run by the UN agency UNRWA.

“The director general of the education ministry in Gaza informed us that … the ministry respects the rights of the students, and especially the Christian ones,” he told The Times of Israel in a phone interview from Gaza. “In reality, there are many schools where this does not take place.”

“Hamas had many opportunities to impose its will on society if it wanted to,” he said. “No one can oppose it.”

Mousa said that students are sometimes punished in schools where the principal is particularly religious. In some cases, the school — trying to win a government prize for adherence to school uniform — singles out female students who refuse to cover their hair. In one school, a headmistress told Mousa she was merely trying to impose equality between rich students, who can care for their hair, and poor ones, whose families cannot even afford shampoo.

“All these reasons cannot justify partisan decisions by certain principals to prevent students from entering school,” Mousa said.

In some cases, he added, student were singled out in front of their colleagues and told they should be ashamed for dressing immodestly.

“It’s emotional harassment,” Mousa said. “Once I’ve even heard of a girl whose principal asked her: ‘Are you a Christian?’ This is dangerous discrimination. In Gaza we don’t discriminate on the basis of religion.”

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