Hamas, the Islamist overlords of Gaza, has started to enforce a ban on male hairdressers as it seeks to impose a stricter code of Islam on Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians.

Hamas, which tightly controls life in Gaza, arrested a male stylist this week, the first such detention since the party introduced the ban in March last year, seen at the time as an effort by the group to burnish its conservative credentials in the face of criticism that it was insufficiently Islamic.

Since the surprise arrest, the handful of male hairdressers have reportedly shied away from the salons where they work, fearful of sharing a similar fate.

In Gaza's fiercely conservative society, where the majority of the population is Muslim and few women venture out with their hair uncovered, only a small number of women are willing to have men cut their hair.

Those who do choose a male stylist are usually foreign or from Gaza's much smaller Christian community.

But the more radical groups in Gaza have long frowned on the practice, and salons have repeatedly been the target of attacks. Hamas has held hardline Islamist groups responsible.

Observers have witnessed a shift in Hamas' own stance, which some Palestinians put down to hardliners achieving more senior positions within the group.

Others say it has come under pressure from Salafist groups, which believe in an ultra-conservative form of Islam, a claim that Hamas officials have denied, saying they are merely responding to social pressures.

Among Hamas' more unpopular steps is its effort to prevent women from smoking the water pipe in public places, although many still flout the law.

It has also barred men from teaching in girls' schools.