Sun, Feb 19, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Female Hamas MPs to tackle sex discrimination

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Ask Huda Naeem how she intends to use her influence as a newly elected MP for Hamas and she ticks off a list of wrongs done to women in the name of religion.

Forced marriage, honor killings, low pay and girls being kept out of school are her priorities for change in the Palestinian parliament. That is when she is not preparing her 13-year-old son to die in the fight against Israel.

"A lot of things need to change," she said.

"Women in Gaza and the West Bank should be given complete rights. Some women and girls are made to marry someone they don't want to marry. This is not in our religion, it's our tradition. In our religion, a woman has a right to choose," Naeem said.

`Struggle'

"As a woman and an MP, there are areas I want to concentrate on but that does not mean we have forgotten our struggle for our homeland, and preparing our children to die when the homeland calls for it," she said.

Naeem, a 37-year-old social worker at the Islamic University in Gaza City and a mother of four, is one of six women elected to parliament on the Hamas ticket in the Islamist party's landslide victory last month. They were due to be sworn in when the new parliament opened yesterday.

Women played a crucial role in getting out the vote for Hamas, knocking on doors and often getting a sympathetic hearing. Hamas's strategy to build political support through its social programmes -- the provision of health clinics, nurseries and food for the poor -- sealed the loyalty of many Palestinian women.

"Women are closer to the problems of the society," said Naeem.

"They are the ones who feel the unemployment. They are the ones who have to look after the children when their husbands are in prison. They feel well treated by Hamas institutions. Now these women are looking to us, the women in parliament, to change other things," she said.

Shortly before the election, Hamas launched a women's armed wing and pictured members brandishing guns and rocket-propelled grenades in its campaign posters. But the women MPs say their priority is reform, not armed struggle.

Jamila Shanti, a philosophy professor at the Islamic University who headed the list of Hamas's women candidates, says the female activists agree on the need to tackle discrimination.

"Our first job is to correct this because this is not Islam," she said. "We are going to show that women are not secondary, they are equal to men. Discrimination is not from Islam, it is from tradition. It may not be easy. Men may not agree," Shanti said.

Attempts in the last parliament to change laws that impose stiff punishments on women who commit adultery while going easy on men and provide relatively light sentences for "honor killings" of women who are deemed to have disgraced the family, ran into the sand amid resistance from older secular MPs.

Islah Jad, a lecturer in women's studies at Birzeit University, says the party is at odds with itself over women's rights.

"In 1999, they admitted for the first time that women are oppressed and they have a cause," Jad said.

"The second step is to attempt to formulate a kind of vision but it's very unstable. When family law was discussed they approved some reforms: that the age of marriage was 18 and that a woman can put any condition she wants in the marriage contract," she said.

`Shariah' law

"But when it came to the penal code and the punishment for adultery, [the late Hamas spiritual leader] Sheikh Yassin said it was based on Shariah law and shouldn't be touched," she said.

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