A Hamas Surprise: Women Secure Victory

A Hamas surprise: Women secure victory

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By Ian Fisher
The New York Times
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 3, 2006

GAZA Hamas has been known and feared for its men, armed with suicide bombs. But in its parliamentary election triumph here last week, one secret weapon was its women.

To a degree that specialists said was new in the conservative Muslim society of the Gaza Strip, Hamas used its women to win, sending them door to door with voter lists and to polling places for last-minute campaigning.

Now unexpectedly in control of Palestinian politics, Hamas can boast that women hold six of its 74 seats in Parliament, giving the women of the radical group, guided in all ways by their understanding of Islam, a new and unaccustomed public role.

“We are going to lead factories. We are going to lead farmers,” said Jamila al-Shanty, 48, a professor at the Islamic University in Gaza who won a seat in Parliament. “We are going to spread out through society. We are going to show the people of the world that the practice of Islam in regard to women is not well known.”

If Shanty’s prediction is borne out, the role of women will certainly not be along the secular Western lines followed largely, and with real strides for women, under decades of leadership by Yasser Arafat’s now-defeated Fatah faction. The model will be Islam: Women in Hamas wear head scarves and follow strict rules for social segregation from men.

One of their role models, and one of the few women in Hamas well known before the election, has a history particularly troubling to many in Israel and the outside world.

She is Mariam Farhat, the mother of three Hamas advocates killed by Israelis. She bade one son goodbye in a homemade videotape before he stormed an Israeli settlement, killing five people before he was killed. A comment she made later received wide publicity: She said that she wished she had 100 sons to sacrifice that way. Known as the “mother of martyrs,” she is seen in a campaign video carrying a gun.

Now she is one of the six women elected as Hamas legislators. The election rules included quotas for women for all parties. Farhat was surrounded recently at a Hamas victory rally at the women’s campus of the Islamic University by young, outspoken, educated women who see no contradiction between religious militancy and modernity.

“She is a mother to every house, every person,” said one of the students, Reem el-Nabris, 20, who kissed and hugged Farhat.

Farhat, 56, who had not been active in politics, said she hoped she deserved their praise as a role model. But she said her role should not be the only one for Hamas’s women.

“It is not only sacrificing sons,” she said after the rally. “There are different kinds of sacrifice – by money, by education. Everybody, according to their ability, should sacrifice.”

The Islamic University, an oasis of order in the grit and chaos of Gaza, shows as well as any place the conflicting images of Hamas in relation to the women who strongly support it.

A stronghold for Hamas, though not exclusively for its supporters, the university is split in two for men and women, and it can be jarring to cross the corridor from crowds without a woman’s face to another of women, all with their heads covered, some wearing the full veil, the nikab. On the day of the rally, some also wore green Hamas baseball caps.

Yet Hamas encourages, and in some cases pays for, the education of these women. Sabrin al-Barawi, 21, a chemistry student, said she had been raised with Hamas programs for women: social groups, leadership courses, Koran classes. “It’s not only religious,” said Ahlan Shameli, 21, who is studying computers. “It’s the Internet, computers.”

“Before Hamas, women were not aware of the political situation,” she said. “But Hamas showed and clarified what was going on. Women have become much more aware.”

In nearly two decades, the top tier of Hamas’s leadership has seemed very much reserved for men. But supporters of Hamas, as well as those of Fatah and other specialists, agreed with Shameli that Hamas had earned strong support from women. Studies and results from municipal elections show women supporting the group in larger numbers than men.

If the men’s most visible role has been fighting Israel, it is Hamas’s social programs that have attracted the loyalty of women. Hamas offers assistance programs for widows of suicide bombers and poor people, health clinics, day care, kindergartens and preschools, in addition to beauty parlors and women-only gyms. Women “are the ones who take kids to clinics,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. “They are the ones who take children to schools.”

During the elections, he said, Hamas mobilized these same women as if it had been “building up for this occasion for 30 years,” using them as grass-roots campaign workers.

“It’s something noticeable in the Gaza Strip,” he said. “In Palestinian society, our values do not accept women to go out and campaign in the street. It’s really a new phenomenon, especially for Hamas.”

Reem Abu Athra, who directs women’s affairs for the Fatah youth wing, said that her party did not seem to understand how mobilized Hamas’s women were generally, and that Fatah had not matched the grass-roots work by Hamas women during the elections.

She said Fatah seemed to think it would naturally win the women’s vote, as the more secular party that has been in some ways a leader in the Arab world in rights for women.

“Fatah took women for granted, and this is one reason it lost,” she said.

Naima Sheikh Ali, a Fatah legislator who runs a group for Gaza women, said Hamas’s strict interpretation of Islam would remain a barrier to true participation by women. They cannot, for instance, be judges under Islam, she said, and will generally remain segregated and pushed to the side.

“Yes, they respect women, but as they conceive that respect,” she said. “It is from a religiously fundamental view. For the women’s movement, this will set us back several steps.”

Shanty disagreed. She said that women, and especially the wives of top Hamas leaders, had long played a central role in Hamas’s leadership, though she said that role had not been publicized to protect them.

“Every decision that is taken by Hamas is passed to us, not after the decision is made but before,” she said.

One measure of participation by women may be the extent that they take part in addressing the main problems facing Palestinians, and not just on social issues that affect women, families or children.

In an interview before she won a legislative seat, Mouna Mansour, 44, a physics teacher who is the widow of Jamal Mansour, an assassinated Hamas leader, seemed very much engaged in the central issues. The peace process with Israel, she said, was dead. There should be a Palestinian state, but not at the cost of Jerusalem or the claims of Palestinian refugees, who under previous negotiations would not be permitted to move into what is today Israel.

Hamas, she said, needs to rebuild the economy, get rid of poverty and unemployment and, for now, continue the cease-fire with Israel.

But she also defended the decision of a young Nablus man to become a suicide bomber.

“Why not ask the question from another angle?” she said. “Why would he blow himself up if he was not subject to such great pressures? What leads you to do such a bitter thing? People do this from anger and injustice, to bring back life to their own people by sacrificing their lives.”

But there is also unease. One student at the Islamic University said Hamas represented an unknown for women like her. The student, Rula Zaanin, 19, said Hamas had, at least, earned her trust.

“A lot of Palestinians love Hamas and wanted them,” she said. “But we don’t know what will happen.”

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