A new Gaza law mandating separate classrooms for boys and girls from age nine is another worrisome sign that the territory's Islamic militant Hamas rulers are gradually imposing their fundamentalist practices, the head of a Gaza women's group warned Tuesday.
Since seizing Gaza in 2007, Hamas has issued a series of rules restricting women or requiring them to cover up in the traditional Islamic dress of long robes and headscarves. There have also been bans on women smoking water pipes in public, riding on the backs of motorcycles or getting their hair done by male stylists.
The Gaza rules appear harsh compared to Western practice but are not unusual in parts of the Arab and Muslim world.
If faced with public resistance, Hamas tends to refrain from enforcing the rules. In 2009, after women protested, it scrapped a decree requiring female lawyers to wear headscarves in court.
On Monday, Gaza's Hamas-run parliament issued the new education law that requires gender segregation from age nine and also bars male teachers from teaching girls.
The idea of gender segregation in schools, particularly from the onset of puberty, is widely accepted in conservative Palestinian society. Even in the West Bank, run by a more liberal Western-backed self-rule government, most public schools separate boys and girls by fourth grade.
The separation, not mandated by law, is left to local authorities to decide according to residents' sensibilities.
The new Gaza law deprives teachers and parents of that choice, imposing gender segregation on private co-ed schools.
Zeinab al-Ghnaimi, head of Gaza's only legal aid center for women, said the legislation is just the latest measure in Hamas' campaign of imposing its hard-line Islamic practices on Gaza's 1.7 million people.
"The laws they are issuing affirm discrimination against women," said al-Ghnaimi. "It's a clear strengthening of the culture of separation between the genders, and this is unacceptable."
Her group issued a statement protesting the new law.
She said such protests have worked on occasion in the past, including in reversing the 2009 rule that female lawyers must wear headscarves in court. She said getting laws overturned is more difficult than changing administrative decisions.
A Gaza education official said the law enshrines the cultural preferences of Gazans.
"We are a Muslim society and we all respect our religion," said Walid Mezher, the Education Ministry's legal adviser. "The aim is not to enforce Islam, as some people are saying ... It's simply to honor the traditions and the culture of the society."
Mezher noted that the education law deals with a host of issues, including improving the standing of teachers. "The law has 60 articles, and the media focused on one footnote?" he said.
School gender separation is common in other parts of the Arab and Muslim world.
In majority Muslim Iraq, the law requires boys and girls in both public and private schools to study separately from age 12, when they enter secondary school. In some schools, segregation begins in elementary school. The law does not ban male teachers from teaching girls, but the Education Ministry prefers female teachers for girls.
In Pakistan, schools are not segregated by law, and boys and girls study together in the lower grades, but they tend to be separated at the start of secondary school.
In Jordan, gender segregation is left up to private and public schools. In 1990, Muslim Brotherhood Cabinet ministers declared a ban on gender mixing in public high schools sports. It is still in effect.
In Lebanon, there is no gender segregation law, and private and public schools are allowed to handle the issue as they see fit.
Public and private schools in Morocco are integrated at all levels, except for Quran schools influenced by Salafi preachers espousing a fundamentalist version of Islam.
In the Gulf, the rules generally encourage gender separation in classrooms for native residents. There are also many schools for foreign workers and residents, including Indians, Europeans and others, that allow co-ed classes.
Gaza has 690 schools with 466,000 students. Of those, 397 schools are public, 243 are run by a UN aid agency for refugees and 46 are private. The UN system has separate schools for boys and girls.
Only four private schools, where boys and girls study together until a later age, would be affected by the law. They are three Christian-run schools and the American International School, with a total enrollment of 3,500. Officials at the schools declined comment on the new law.
In addition to legislation, there has been mounting social and peer pressure on Gaza girls and women to wear headscarves and robes. Earlier this year, a branch of Al-Aqsa University in the southern town of Khan Younis made it a requirement for all female students to wear robes in addition to headscarves.
Al-Ghnaimi said one of her female cousins who studies at the Khan Younis school defies the edict by not wearing a robe, though she does cover her hair with a scarf. Al-Ghnaimi said her cousin sometimes gets stopped at the university gate and is questioned about her attire but so far has faced no repercussions.