Islamic Edict in Gaza Bars Unmarried Women From Travel Without a Male’s Permission

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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A Palestinian woman in Gaza City in May.
A Palestinian woman in Gaza City in May.Credit: Mohammed Abed / AFP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

An Islamic ruling issued in the Gaza Strip and published in a circular prohibits unmarried women from traveling without the permission of a male guardian (a father, brother or other male relative). The limitation is part of other travel restrictions that also apply to men under certain circumstances. The edict, which took effect Sunday, contradicts Palestinian Basic Law because it treats men and women differently and imposes broad restrictions on movement. 

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It was signed by the head of the Sharia Supreme Judicial Council in the Strip, Hassan al-Jojo, who is also the president of the Sharia Supreme Court in the coastal enclave. The first section of the circular is considered relatively positive and is meant to prevent children from being forcibly removed from the care of their mothers. It prohibits the father from traveling with his children without their mother’s permission (when the children are of an age at which their mother is their guardian).

The second section permits a divorced father to travel with his children if his ex-wife has remarried and is no longer their guardian. In both these cases, the permission is granted by a Sharia court. In all cases, the mother, whether divorced or not, needs the permission of the children’s father to travel with her children. The most problematic sections, in the view of Palestinian human rights organizations and feminist activists, are the ones restricting travel by unmarried men and women.

The circular permits parents and the paternal grandfather to file a legal action to prevent an unmarried son or grandson aged 18 or over from traveling, if it would cause “grave harm.” The nature of the “harm” and who makes the decision regarding it is not specified, nor is the age at which an unmarried man can no longer be restricted from traveling.

According to another section, however, women who are “virgins or ex-married” (that is, not virgins) may be prevented from traveling at any age without permission from their male guardian. Here too, the prohibition can be based on the claim that the travel could cause “grave harm,” or it can be the result of legal action. In other words, border agents or police officers may prevent any adult unmarried woman from traveling unless she shows them written permission from a male relative.

The Sharia religious courts adjudicate family law in the Strip, and the Sharia Supreme Council supervises those courts. Like the civil judicial system, the Sharia court system in the Gaza Strip has been separate from its West Bank counterpart since the political division that began in 2007, when Hamas took control of the Strip’s security agencies, a year after it won general elections. 

Gazans protest against a new religious edict restricting the movements of unmarried women, yesterday. Credit: Adel Hana,AP

The office of the chief justice of the Sharia courts in the West Bank, Mahmoud al-Habash, rejected the ruling, saying that its courts are the sole arbiter and that Palestinians are not bound by the edict. But the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights said in a press release Tuesday that Hamas authorities had been acting in accordance with the spirit of the circular even before it was issued.

On the other hand, a researcher at a Palestinian human rights organization in the Strip told Haaretz that some Hamas officials have expressed their dissatisfaction with the circular and its prohibitions.

From the way the circular is worded, it’s not clear whether it also applies to travel within the Gaza Strip or only beyond it, and whether it includes travel to Israel and the West Bank. It is also unclear whether Gaza authorities are authorized to restrict the movements of Palestinian residents of the West Bank, who are permitted by Israel to enter the Strip under exceptional personal circumstances.

Theoretically, due to the prohibitions on movement that Israel has maintained on the Strip since 1991 and the border crossing restrictions imposed by Egypt on its border with Gaza, the Sharia council’s ruling does not apply to a large number of people.

Nevertheless, it adds another obstacle to the already complicated process of leaving the Strip. It has drawn swift condemnation and calls for its rescission from prominent Palestinian human rights organizations.

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