In the past 10 years, Palestine has changed. Now, you see young men with ponytails or the occasional tattoo. Teenage girls can be seen with bright pink streaks down their long tresses or wearing black “emo” makeup for those who think ‘the dark place” is fashionable.
We can chalk all of these things up to globalization, westernization or whatever “-ization” one prefers. We can gawk, criticize or embrace the eccentricities that are popping up in our Middle Eastern culture, but what we should not do is prohibit or quell personal choice, as long as it does no harm to others.
This is a lesson lost on the de facto Hamas government in Gaza. Since it assumed power in 2007, it has issued one oppressive social edict after another against the people of the Strip. Mostly, these edicts target women – they cannot smoke water pipes in public or have a male hairdresser cut their hair. Schoolgirls must cover their hair with a headscarf or wear the jilbab (the Palestinian equivalent to the Iranian chador). Men and women cannot walk together unless they are married (or first degree relatives) and female university students must dress “modestly” in line with Islamic culture and norms.
Men are not immune to the crackdown either. A happily ponytailed man in Ramallah is likely to be detained, beaten and his hair cut against his will if he decided to walk the streets of Gaza. This is what happened yesterday when several Gazan men were rounded up, taken into custody and forced to cut their hair, for what the Hamas-controlled police called “inappropriate hairstyles”. Before being released, they were also warned against wearing low-hung jeans as well, saying such styles were offensive to Muslim tradition and customs.
Socially, the Hamas crackdown seems to be directly proportionate to their increased political control over the Strip. Despite numerous efforts with the help of regional mediation to bring about internal reconciliation between it and Fatah, Hamas seems comfortable in its tiny, besieged coastal enclave. And the more assertive it gets politically, the tighter it seems to pull the noose socially.
This, of course, is a huge problem for Palestinians who have grown accustomed to the secular rule of the PLO. Even though Palestinian society leans more towards the conservative, there has always been wiggle room for personal style and choices. What Hamas does not seem to understand is that if they burn their bridges socially with the people – even the more conservative Gazans will eventually have enough – they will lose their political popularity as well. If elections are ever held, this will surely be reflected.
Palestinians have worked long and hard to maintain their struggle for social liberation in tandem with their ongoing political struggle for freedom. Up until now, they have been relatively successful. However, with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole, groups like Hamas have been emboldened to take more daring steps, social agenda included.
It remains to be seen how this will play out with the Palestinians if they ever reach the ballot boxes. Probably not so well, because it does not matter if we like the ponytails, the gelled-up hair, the pink streaks or the slouchy jeans. That is not our business. It is, however, these young people’s right.
Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.