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Posted in: Islamic Gender & Religious Apartheid

Published on Jul 08, 2009 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for Pajamas Media

Palestinian Taliban Arrest Palestinian Feminist

Government Promises Investigation


Asma'a Al-Ghoul is a Palestinian secular feminist who has written poignant, heartbreaking pieces about honor killings and women's rights in Gaza. Last month, Asma'a quit her job at Al Ayaam because her subject matter got her into "trouble" at work. She is also the journalist who was arrested over the weekend by Hamas's "morality" police, ostensibly for "laughing immoderately" and for "immodest" clothing at the beach.

The beach!

Asma'a, the 27 year-old mother of a four year-old son, was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. She went into the water fully clothed. Apparently, that was not modest enough for them.

According to Asma'a, with whom I just spoke, the Palestinian police detained her and took her passport away. They also beat up four male friends: two right there on the beach, all four back in police custody. (One of these men was not sitting with them at the time but came to their aid when the police attacked them). Due to the intercession of a journalist-friend with whom the beach goers were visiting, the police let Asma'a go—but with a warning; they told her "they would be following her case." The police also returned Asma'a's passport to her. In addition, the police wanted to confiscate her laptop but luckily, they were unable to find it.

Since then, Asma'a received a written death threat. She has been staying home, and has, understandably, had trouble sleeping.

"But," she tells me, "Both my friends and the media have been supporting me." Indeed, Asma'a wrote to thank me for my recent piece which mentioned her plight.

"And" she points out, "yesterday at noon, the government, possibly for the first time ever, announced that they will be looking into this matter."

Asma'a explained that many other such incidents have happened and been covered up. "People are afraid to speak out. But we must speak out in order to stop this. We fear that the government will banish those who speak."

It has been said, that the Palestinian people once were the most educated people in the Arab world. Over the years, I have known and worked with both secular and religious Palestinian Muslim and ex-Muslim feminists who are in favor of modernity and women's rights.

Nevertheless, increasingly, Hamas officials have been cracking down on women and on western ways. They have "urged shopkeepers to take down foreign advertisements which show the shape of women's bodies and to hide lingerie which is currently displayed in windows. Officials search electronic shops to check if they are selling pornography on tiny flash drives."

According to human rights activist, Isam Younis, "There's an open, public program to preserve public morals in Gaza,..In reality that means trying to restrict freedoms. Hamas denies that any crackdown is under way. But they have failed to take any action against the groups that have been attacking hairdressers and internet cafes.

Under Hamas, women have been increasingly veiling: wearing hijab, wearing versions of the Iranian, Saudi, and Afghani abayas, chadors, burqas, etc.

Asma'a tells me: "Palestinian feminists have not called to support me. They are afraid. Some have told me that I am so 'strong,' (which means that they think) they are not."

Asma'a has written a moving paper about honor killings and women's rights in Gaza which she originally published in Arabic in Al-Ayaam. She has given me permission to edit and publish it here which I will do in two parts. In it, one of the things she describes is how Palestinian women themselves have internalized misogyny (something that is a global phenomenon and about which I've written in Women's Inhumanity to Woman ). Women accept, even support, the punishment and murder of women.

According to Asma'a, at a recent workshop in Khan Yunis, many of the women gathered "were fully convinced that a woman who makes a mistake must be killed. A woman wearing a black folk dress consisting of two parts and only the forehead and one of the eyes can be seen through said: 'She deserves to die…she should be a way to give a lesson to others.' Neither she nor the other women believed that men should be punished for the same crime or for murdering a woman for the sake of 'family honor.'"

"You know," Asma'a said, "when my mother was my age she used to wear short skirts and no hijab. I do not wear hijab. But now, the women cover everything, even their faces. I am a secular Muslim. Theoretically, I believe that Islam and secular values can be compatible The government has attached themselves to the most extreme facets of Islam, not to Islam ( as it has been practiced in the past)." These morality police think they are god."

As to the future—Asma'a tells me: "We don't know. We are waiting."

Asma'a is lucky. Her family supports her. This is crucial. She has friends. She has a college degree and a profession. The media is paying attention. The government, perhaps responding to such media attention, has gone through some pro forma damage control. Asma'a was not arrested. Still, for the first time, Asma'a is now thinking about leaving Gaza.

"Gaza needs liberal and secular people to defend liberty. For this reason, I have never wanted to leave. But after what happened, I am thinking of leaving."

Asma'a wonders whether Hamas would become more flexible, more tolerant, if they were part of a real government. "Now, they are like a caged cat that has become a tiger." I reminded her that the Islamists in Iran and Saudi Arabia also think they are gods and they have full state legitimacy–and they have largely caged and murdered women and dissidents. Their policies on women are reprehensible.

Asma'a immediately agreed. But she also said this: "There are no books in Gaza. If you don't give people a chance to learn new things, how will they change?"

I was very moved by Asma'a's article about honor killings in Gaza. She had—and still has—no idea that we share a common passion or that I've been writing about this subject for a long time. With Asma'a's permission, I am publishing it here in an edited form. I will publish Part Two later this week.

The author would like to acknowledge the seamlessly efficient assistance of Elizabeth McAvoy and Colette McIntyre in the preparation of this piece.


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