The ruling by a Hamas-appointed Islamic religious court requiring women to secure permission from male relatives before travelling sets back decades Gaza’s struggle to ensure equal rights for both genders.
The decision refers specifically to “unmarried women” but implies that married women will also have to apply to husbands for approval. The permit has to be registered at the court but men granting it will not have to accompany women on the journey.
While men do not have to obtain prior permission, the measure also bars them from travelling if their fathers or grandfathers bring a lawsuit claiming this would cause “grave harm”. The provision is meant to prevent married men from deserting their wives and children.
The timing of the ruling is significant. It coincided with the indefinite opening of the crossing from Gaza into Egypt, which is used by most Palestinians leaving the Gaza Strip. The crossing previously operated only three or four days at a time, limiting numbers seeking to escape the narrow confines of Gaza, which has a population of two million.
The court's judgment compounds difficulties Gaza's women and girls face since they, as well as men, have to obtain permits from both the Egyptian and Hamas authorities to leave. This can take months and require expensive bribes.
Departing via Israel’s Erez terminal is more problematic and requires hard-to-acquire Israeli permits as well as Hamas’s authorisation and visas for destinations.
The ruling has a political dimension. As Palestinian parliamentary elections are scheduled for May 22nd, Hamas – the militant organisation that governs Gaza – is said to have adopted the measure to appeal to its conservative base. However, Hamas could face a backlash from girls and women who deeply resent male control.
Hamas is out of step with the zeitgeist. In 2019, ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia revoked travel restrictions on women over 21 under crown prince Mohammed bin Salman's social reform programme.
Headscarves and polygamy
Gaza may be isolated by Israel’s siege and blockade, but the strip is not a backwater, due to windows on the world provided by the internet and social media. Female literacy in Gaza is 93 per cent, only 5 per cent less than among males. Girls as well as boys attend Gaza’s universities and educational institutes to earn degrees in the hope that they will find jobs despite soaring rates of youth unemployment for both sexes.
Women face multiple restrictions in Gaza. After Hamas took control in 2007, the movement pressured women to don headscarves and cover up, insisted they remain at home and segregate from men, and allowed polygamy. In 2013, Hamas decreed that boys and girls over nine attend separate schools.
Girls must earn higher marks in exams to enter universities and cannot follow certain courses of study. Nevertheless, women become physicians, pharmacists, nurses, lawyers, teachers and computer programmers. Most work in the private sector and rarely leave the strip for employment. Instead, they depart to attend foreign universities if allowed.