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Assault on female reporter for not wearing hijab sparks backlash in Gaza

A female reporter was recently insulted and physically assaulted for not wearing the Islamic headscarf, which renewed the debate about women’s rights in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Palestinian women wait to leave the Rafah border crossing after it was opened by Egyptian authorities, in the southern Gaza Strip, Feb. 17, 2021.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Ministry of Interior and National Security in the Gaza Strip issued April 30 a statement about a complaint filed by reporter Riwa Murshid who was attacked by two members of a Hamas military unit — known as Hama al-Thaghour (Breach Defenders) — for not wearing the hijab in the Juhr al-Deek border area in central Gaza.

The ministry said Murshid failed to notify competent authorities before entering the border area, and did not show any card proving she was a reporter on an official mission.

According to the ministry’s statement, a member of the Hamas-run unit violated the guidelines on dealing with civilians, by arguing with Murshid and beating her with a tree branch. One of his colleagues intervened to calm the situation and allowed Murshid and her colleagues to leave.

The Ministry of Interior “decided to impose imprisonment on the aggressor and force him to apologize to Murshid,” the statement continued. 

The incident raised the ire of the public in the Gaza Strip, and renewed the debate on women’s freedoms in the patriarchal society. Women in Gaza remain marginalized, and they were dealt a heavy blow after a Hamas-backed court ruled in February that women require the permission of a male guardian to travel abroad.

“On April 25 I was accompanied by a photographer and a colleague to film at a farm in Juhr al-Deek. While shooting we were surprised by two officers who started interrogating us even though we had the approval of the land owner to film,” Murshid told Al-Monitor.

She said, “When I identified myself as a journalist, the officer started criticizing my appearance and attire. I do not wear the hijab. The officer accused me of being an apostate and having no right to speak. He said that arguing with me was a dishonorable act for him. He started hurling direct verbal insults at me. When I stood up to him, he took a tree branch and hit me several times in sensitive places. I have a medical report documenting the beatings.”

Following the incident, Murshid headed to the Ministry of Interior to file a complaint. After waiting 48 hours for a response that did not come, she went to Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights that in turn filed a complaint with the public prosecutor.

“I also resorted to the Independent Commission for Human Rights, which submitted a complaint to the ministry,” she noted. “I did this to protect women’s rights and because I believe the aggressor must be punished to deter others from assaulting women and girls in Gaza. These incidents should not be overlooked and tolerated under any social or religious pretext.”

Murshid recalls the details of the incident when the attacker was following her and beating her as she was trying to protect her body. “I cannot describe the extreme sadness and misery I feel about the situation I was exposed to during my filming session with one of my friends, in the most beautiful area in Gaza,” she added. 

“The ministry’s statement is not enough. It did not address the verbal insults I was subjected to. Yet [the statement] is acceptable to some extent, as it is not customary [in Gaza] to admit mistakes and apologize to the victim, especially if she is a woman,” Murshid noted.

She said the Ministry of Interior has yet to contact her. She read the statement just like everyone else. “The ministry did not express its personal apology,” she continued. “The statement only aims to tame the public opinion to avoid further human rights criticism.”

Murshid urges every female to resort to human rights organizations in the event of any assault and not to keep silent for fear of scandal, shame and slander.

Mervat al-Nahal, coordinator of the Legal Aid Unit at Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza, told Al-Monitor that the incident is a serious violation of the rights to dignity, physical integrity and personal freedom guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Palestinian Penal Code (British Mandate Criminal Code Ordinance No. 74 of 1936).

“This constitutes a serious transgression by the authorities in charge of law enforcement, especially since the violation was committed by individuals who are not authorized to enforce the law and who work in a military wing affiliated with one of the resistance factions,” she said.

Nahal explained that the center — based on the complaint filed by Murshid — resorted to the public prosecutor on her behalf as a victim, calling for a serious and urgent investigation into the incident and for taking the legal measures in line with the principle of the rule of law, the protection of personal freedoms and the preservation of public freedoms.

She added, “This complaint is the first of its kind, and the center showed interest in it due to its seriousness. We want to avoid its recurrence in the future.”

Nahal said the ministry’s statement is not enough. “The aggrieved party must be compensated morally or financially, which has not happened yet. The statement came in response to our official complaint. We have yet to receive any response from the public prosecutor and our complaint is still open.”

She added, “The statement must be accompanied by acts that confirm the ministry’s desire to hold the aggressor accountable and to take disciplinary and deterrent legal measures against him.”

On April 28, the Independent Commission for Human Rights issued a statement condemning “the beating and cruel and inhuman treatment Murshid suffered and the fact that she was prevented from practicing her filming activities.” It stressed the need to protect journalists and their personal freedoms and to enable them to perform their activities without restrictions, in accordance with the Palestinian Basic Law and international charters related to freedom of journalistic work.

Azza Qassem, a Gaza-based human rights activist, told Al-Monitor that the media buzz about Murshid’s incident does not mean that this is the only such incident in Gaza. “Numerous women face verbal and physical abuse by security personnel,” she said.

She noted the authorities should take a stance that deter aggressors to prevent the repetition of similar assaults. She called for the enactment of clear and explicit laws in this respect.

Qassem said, “Such assaults should not be described as isolated incidents. The aggressor reflects the prevailing societal culture that violates women's rights, and confers to men the power to act as guardians over women. An apology to the victim is not sufficient. The statement was only issued to spare the authorities further criticism over the human rights situation [in Gaza].”

She concluded, “Women in the Gaza Strip are highly exposed to violations of their human and humanitarian rights stipulated in all international conventions, in light of the religious nature of the ruling authority. Unfortunately many girls in Gaza wear the hijab only for fear of social criticism and insults.”

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