“Women who are virgins (single) or who were married (divorced and widowed) of any age may not travel without permission from their male guardian (father, grandfather or brother).”
Hasan al Jojo, chairman of the Supreme Council of Sharia (Islamic law) in the Gaza Strip, published this edict a week ago after expressing concern about the growing number of “girls leaving without the consent of their parents.” In his opinion it was understood that married women only go where their husband leaves them.
Declared technically uninhabitable by the UN, inside Gaza there is nowhere to go. The two million Palestinians crammed into the narrow 365-square-kilometer coastal strip have despaired since 2006 as a result of the blockade imposed by Israel, marked by three devastating wars.
As a gesture of goodwill before the legislative elections on May 22, the first called in 15 years, Egypt reopened the Rafah border crossing at the beginning of the month, the only exit abroad not controlled by Israeli troops, and the young men began to escape from an enclave with an unemployment rate of 45.5%, which for those under 30 years of age rises to 62.1%. Young women too.
On Tuesday morning, Magistrate Al Jojo – appointed by the Islamist movement Hamas, which rules de facto in Gaza – was surprised by a protest demonstration outside his office. “We have agreed to rewrite this decision,” he hastened to declare to the press before the uproar caused by his decision to impose a guardian to all Gazans, which he had judged “balanced and in accordance with religious and civil laws.”
The guardian’s authorization must be deposited with the Sharia Council, and security agents can require a copy of the document from women traveling alone.
“In a climate of conservative social norms , families are more inclined to apply the travel ban to women,” says Human Rights Watch researcher Rothna Begun.
“But as the Palestinian organizations for the defense of human rights warn, the resolution violates the right to freedom of movement of every person of legal age contained in the Basic Law (text of constitutional rank) Palestinian”, warns this expert on issues of Gender in the Middle East from the New York-based NGO.
“Only individual travel restrictions can be applied, which are proportional and have a legal basis,” he concludes.
In August 2019, Saudi Arabia ended restrictions on the movement of adult women , who until then needed the authorization of their guardians to travel, as if they were minors, after years of international criticism of the male guardianship system over women.
The decision of the Supreme Council of the Sharia has taken place in the heat of campaign for the Palestinian legislatures, in which the Islamists of Hamas aspire to revalidate their hegemony in the Gaza Strip.
They also intend to expand their influence in the West Bank, where the nationalist Fatah party, led by the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas , holds the reins of power . Having won in the latest elections, Hamas evicted Fatah representatives from the Mediterranean enclave government by force of arms in 2007. Palestinian factions are now trying to heal old wounds to organize the elections.
“The society of Gaza is traditional, but not as much as people think,” says Barbara Demurtas, delegate in Palestine of the Spanish NGO Mundubat, who this Sunday has been able to travel for the first time to the coastal enclave since the beginning of the pandemic, whose The declaration closed the territory to most international observers and to all foreign press.
“After the protests, the president of the Council announced that he was going to review the edict, but the women’s organizations in Gaza have no record that it has been repealed and insist that it is not legally applicable,” says Demurtas.
“Both women and men want to travel to find work, and that is not always well seen, especially if we are talking about women,” highlights the representative of the Basque foundation Mundubat. Very few Gazans – a few hundred Christian women and a handful of lay women – do not cover themselves with the Islamic headscarf or veil.
Some 35,000 Palestinians left the Palestinian strip in 2018, according to Israeli estimates that the UN reduced to 23,500, across the border with Egypt. In 2019, the United Nations counted 10,000 exits above entries, although in November of that year 23,000 had already been counted in the count of entries and exits of those responsible for Rafah. Most of those who leave claim visits to relatives, treatment for an illness or studies in neighboring Arab countries with the commitment to return to the enclave.
The Gulf States and Western Europe are, however, often final destinations for those looking to start over. Last year there were hardly any departures due to the health situation,although the Egyptian border occasionally remained open for the return of residents in Gaza, despite the risk of contagion by coronavirus.
“The Sharia Council edict has added (for women) a new obstacle in the difficult race to get out of the Strip,” says Amira Hass, Palestinian affairs correspondent for the daily Haaretz . “But it has also elicited swift condemnation,” he stresses, “and calls for its immediate termination by Palestinian human rights organizations.”