Hamas continues to nudge the Gaza Strip territory it controls towards Islamic principles by calling for gender segregation of classrooms starting at age 9. The move was noted by a region's women's rights group, which says that it confirms fears that Hamas is attempting to remake the area in its own radical Islamic image.
Since Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007, women's activities and freedom of action has been restricted numerous times via decrees requiring the wearing of the traditional head veil and a long robe in accordance with Islamic views on modesty. Women have also been forbidden from smoking water pipes in public, riding on the back of motorcycles and going to beauty parlors run by men.
The Gaza rules appear harsh compared to Western practice but are not unusual in parts of the Arab and Muslim world.
If faced with public resistance, Hamas tends to refrain from enforcing the rules. In 2009, after women protested, it scrapped a decree requiring female lawyers to wear headscarves in court.
On Monday, Gaza's Hamas-run parliament issued the new education law that requires gender segregation from age nine and also bars male teachers from teaching girls.
The new law will no longer weigh parental or instructor views on the decision about whether to separate the genders, but will instead force a separation on all private schools. According to legal adviser for the Education Ministry Walid Mezher, the law just formalizes what many Gazans already practice.
"We are a Muslim society and we all respect our religion," said Walid Mezher, the Education Ministry's legal adviser. "The aim is not to enforce Islam, as some people are sayingâ¦ It's simply to honor the traditions and the culture of the society."
Mezher noted that the education law deals with a host of issues, including improving the standing of teachers. "The law has 60 articles, and the media focused on one footnote?" he said.
School gender separation is common in other parts of the Arab and Muslim world.
Zainab al-Ghnaimi, who runs Gaza's only legal aid society that offers services to women, calls the move gender discrimination. Formalizing what is already informally practiced solidifies a societal separation between the genders and marginalizes women residents, says al-Ghnaimi.
Her organization has released a letter criticizing the new law, and al-Ghnaimi is optimistic that a strong show of protest could work to either weaken the new measure or stall its implementation. Community protests have worked in the past to turn back unpopular legislation as they did in 2009 when Hamas attempted to require female lawyers to wear a head scarf when in court.