GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Nathalie, who refused to give out her full name, is getting ready to go to school in Gaza City. She puts on a blouse and a denim skirt, loads the books in her backpack and, most importantly before stepping out of the door, braids her hair as Christian girls are directed to do by the headmistress of the Ahmed Shawki Secondary School for Girls.
“The first day of school, the headmistress called upon the Christian students to come forward in front of the entire morning queue. She grabbed the hair of a girl among us and started to braid it, saying that this is how we should have our hair done or she will force us to wear the hijab within a week,” Nathalie told Al-Monitor.
The headmistress could not carry out her threats. The five girls, who are all Christian, remain the only ones among 900 students who do not wear headscarves.
“There is no law imposing the hijab on students in government schools in Gaza, whether elementary or secondary,” Ziad Thabet, undersecretary of the Ministry of Education in the Gaza Strip, told Al-Monitor during an interview at his office. “The headmistress of the Ahmed Shawki School, Iman Abu Samra, did not force the hijab upon schoolgirls." According to him, the girls who wear the hijab do so because of their religious conviction.
Ironically, this alleged ideological coercion is taking place in reverse in the West Bank and Jerusalem, where some schoolgirls say they are being forced to take off their veils.
One student at Terra Sancta Girls School-Sisters of St. Joseph-Bethlehem started to wear a hijab, as she felt she was ready, at the beginning of the new academic year. She knew the school did not allow it. Her cousin, Mohammed al-Awawda, spoke to Al-Monitor when she and her family refused to talk to the media.
“My cousin wanted to wear the hijab, but she knew it was forbidden, which made her transfer to another school,” he said. “Her mother went to the school administration to have her daughter’s file, to transfer her to another school, but her request was denied, as my cousin was one of the top students in the school. The school was left with two choices, either allow the hijab or give up on an outstanding student. Eventually, the school opted for the latter.”
Al-Monitor contacted the school by phone, but was not able to speak with the headmistress, Femia Khoury. A source in the school’s administration did tell Al-Monitor, “The school’s uniform [policy] is clear and unchangeable, [with] no need for additions or deductions.”
However, the uniform instructions on the school’s Facebook page did not mention anything about hijabs one way or another.
Only a few news articles were written on the subject in Bethlehem, but the story in Gaza was widely publicized, especially since one student, Marah Nashwan, spoke up about the attempts to force her to wear a veil.
“As soon as I set foot in the school, the secretary grabbed and shook me, asking me about my hijab. I spent the first day in the schoolyard, as I was denied from entering the class as a punishment,” Nashwan told Al-Monitor.
“The second day, I skipped school. My mother and eldest sister went to school and had a long discussion with the principal, who stressed that I should wear the veil, under the pretext that this was her school and her rules,” she said.
On the third day, Nashwan was escorted to school with the head of the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), Jamil Sarhan, but to no avail. The headmistress stood her ground and did not allow Nashwan inside the classroom.
“We received a complaint from Nashwan’s parents, so I went with her to school," Sarhan said. "The principal promised to let her in, but she didn't. The student stayed in the schoolyard.” Sarhan told Al-Monitor that Nashwan's complaint is the only one ICHR has received about hijabs in schools.
Nashwan said, “The headmistress tried to convince me to wear the veil, but did not succeed. It does not make sense to me that I have to wear the hijab inside the school only. Many girls have bought one from the store across the street from the school, out of fear."
The ICHR sent a letter to the Ministry of Education in Gaza regarding the complaint. Al-Monitor secured a copy of the ministry’s response, which said: “Kindly note that the concerned student was not denied from entering class," as long as she wore a hijab. "However, she and her mother have threatened the school principal and the issue was referred to the disciplinary council in the directorate. The council issued an order to transfer the student to the Galilee Secondary School.”
Karam Nashwan, the student’s father and a lawyer, said, “We did not receive any notice from the disciplinary council. No one listened to what my wife and daughter had to say. The decision was made unilaterally.”
His wife, Hiam Shaat, also spoke to Al-Monitor. “I am surprised at this sudden charge. We had an amicable talk with the principal and I even remember that she praised my hijab during our discussion at her office in school,” she said.
Al-Monitor visited the Ahmed Shawki School on Sept. 10 to meet with the headmistress, but she apologized for not receiving anyone.
Two weeks later, Nashwan was left with no other choice but to move to the Galilee Secondary School, otherwise she would miss her school year.
Student Reem Abu Rahma of Gaza was also denied admission to Ahmed Shawki Secondary School for Girls, as she does not wear a headscarf. Her mother, Taghrid Jomaa, told Al-Monitor, “When we wanted to register Reem, my daughter, at the school, Mrs. Abu Samra insisted that Reem must be with us. So my daughter and my husband came together to school. The principal was confident when she said she does not allow unveiled students in her school.”
What is happening in Gaza is not new. With the beginning of each school year, unveiled students face a lot of pressure to wear the headscarf. In 2009, a group of headmistresses at state secondary schools in Gaza City required female students to wear hijabs and gowns as part of the schools' official uniforms. However, the Ministry of Education — led by Hamas at the time — denied there was any official ministry measure to that effect, and said the hijab requirement was a personal effort on the part of some headmistresses and schools to benefit female students.
In the West Bank and Jerusalem, veiled girls in the Rosary Sisters School protested in 2014, as they were not allowed to go to their graduation ceremony wearing hijabs.
Following the two incidents in Bethlehem and Gaza, Minister of Education Sabri Saydam issued an educational circular Aug. 30 for the principals of government and private schools, stressing the “need to protect personal freedom and religious pluralism and to reinforce the principle of respect for others, in compliance with the provisions of the Palestinian Basic Law.”
However, it seems that in light of the disagreements between the unity government in the West Bank and the Hamas movement in Gaza, decisions and circulars are not binding. The St. Joseph School in Bethlehem did not abide by the circular, which raises many questions about the viability of a secular system calling for pluralism in a dogmatic community.
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