GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — On Oct. 21, the women’s preaching and guidance department of the Hamas-run Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs in Gaza began a campaign called “Be Different” targeting high school and university students who do not wear the veil. It started in Gaza City and will expand to other cities in an effort to convince girls to wear the headscarf, which is considered an Islamic religious obligation. The project is set to run until May 2019.
Nadia al-Ghoul, head of the preaching and guidance department, said in an Oct. 21 statement published on the ministry’s website, “One of the campaign’s objectives is to promote the correct concepts of women's dress based on Sharia.” She noted that some girls might choose to go unveiled for “lack of Islamic awareness, or disadvantages in family upbringing.”
Hijab culture prevails among women in Palestinian society. Religious families force girls to start wearing the hijab when they reach puberty as a religious obligation. In religiously moderate families, many girls start wearing the hijab at 16. Meanwhile, a small group of Palestinian families do not observe hijab as either a religious obligation or a social custom, at any age. No official statistics are available on what portion of women wear the veil in the Gaza Strip.
Abeer al-Tartour, the preaching and guidance department’s field supervisor, told Al-Monitor, “The Be Different campaign includes sermons and lectures given by the department's preachers in schools and universities in Gaza City to spread the hijab culture among non-veiled students. It will also include home visits to talk to their mothers about the importance of wearing the veil.”
Tartour added that the campaign began by addressing non-veiled students at Balqees Al-Yaman Secondary School south of Gaza City and then extended to other schools such as al-Shajaiya in eastern Gaza and Mustafa Hafez in central Gaza. Within days or weeks after the school seminars, the ministry’s female preachers will visit the students’ mothers to convince them of the need to wear the hijab.
“In cooperation with the Ministry of Education and the directors of these schools, non-veiled students were invited to attend two meetings in each school over the course of two days to convince them to wear veils,” Tartour said. She explained the importance of wearing the hijab in terms of social relations, saying, “When girls don’t wear the headscarf, they risk tempting young Palestinian men who are unemployed, poor and do not have the means to get married. This could lead to sinful extramarital relations.”
Wearing the hijab is a religious obligation for women according to many of the Quranic verses and hadiths. Abu Dawood narrated from the hadith of Aisha, one of Muhammad's wives, that the Prophet Muhammad once told Asma, the daughter of Abi Bakr al-Siddiq, “O Asma! When a girl reaches the age of puberty, she is only allowed to reveal this and that,” pointing to his face and hands.
Rafif Youssef, 17, was one of the nine students who attended the meetings in al-Shajaiya. She told Al-Monitor that she does not wear a hijab because her family does not consider it necessary. Many of the women in her family have never worn a hijab no matter their age.
Youssef explained that the school administration required non-veiled students to attend the two meetings. One of the campaigners summoned them from their classes and asked them to go to the school library to attend the 40-minute meetings, she said.
Youssef said that during the first seminar, the preachers handed them a questionnaire. “The following questions were asked: ‘How much do you believe in the hijab?’ ‘Why aren’t you convinced to wear the hijab?’ and ‘Are you not wearing the hijab because of your parents, for keeping up with fashion or because you are not convinced to wear it?’”
Tartour indicated that the questionnaires show that most respondents were not convinced of the importance of wearing the hijab and considered the decision a matter of personal freedom. “At the second meeting, the preachers gave sermons and lectures stressing that wearing the hijab is not a matter of personal freedom, but rather a religious obligation according to Quranic texts.” she added.
Tartour asserted that the campaign does not aim to force girls to wear the hijab but to convince them of the need to do so.
Aala Yazji, 17, is a non-veiled 11th-grade student at Balqees Al-Yaman Secondary School. She told Al-Monitor that the campaign did not change her mind about the need to wear the veil. “I was not convinced by the sermons and lectures, especially since the preachers made non-veiled students attend the lessons. One of the students who did not want to attend was forced to do so.”
Rosalinda al-Ashi, 16, is another non-veiled student in the same school. She says she didn't mind attending lectures but was annoyed by their timing during school hours.
“These sermons and lectures made me think about wearing the hijab,” she said. “But I quickly changed my mind after discussing this with my colleagues who attended the sermons. They convinced me that we were still young to wear the hijab. Also, my father has not encouraged me to wear it at this age.”
Adel al-Ashi, Rosalinda's father, told Al-Monitor his family is conservative and all its adult women members wear the hijab, like the vast majority of Palestinian women. However, he disapproves of the pressure this campaign put on Rosalinda, “My daughter is too young. She still sleeps with her doll, so why should she wear the hijab at this young age?”
Assistant Undersecretary of the Palestinian Ministry of Education in Gaza Anwar al-Barawi told Al-Monitor, “The ministry encourages these awareness campaigns. Wearing the hijab is part of Palestinian religious and social values.” He went on, “I do not find that such campaigns affect personal freedoms, as long as their purpose is educational and without coercion. Yet I do believe women in Palestinian society must wear the hijab out of respect for our environment and our Islamic identity.”
Roua al-Sheikh Ahmed, 22, is studying at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. Ahmed did not wear the hijab until she attended one of the campaign’s seminars at the university.
“I had been thinking about wearing the hijab for many months, because I was no longer a little girl,” she said. “The hijab is a religious duty for Muslim women. I was reluctant to take this step because most of my close friends were not veiled, but this campaign convinced me that not wearing the veil is disobedience of Allah and deserves punishment, so I made my decision to wear it,” Ahmed told Al-Monitor.
She continued, “Most of my non-veiled friends at university opposed the campaign. But they respect my decision to wear the hijab as a matter of personal freedom.”
Tartour said that the preachers have most recently organized sermons at the Islamic University, Al-Azhar University and Al-Aqsa University. She indicated that the campaign will visit all the relevant schools and universities across the Gaza Strip.
Then, the project will become even more ambitious. According to Tartour, “When this campaign ends in May 2019, a similar campaign will target all non-veiled women from all segments of society, such as female workers, to promote the hijab culture.”
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