Bans on women smoking water pipes in public and male coiffeurs styling women’s hair are no longer being strictly enforced in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, apparent signs of greater tolerance as the Islamic militant group acknowledges mistakes in seeking to impose a religious lifestyle.
In explaining the change, several senior members said Hamas had matured during its five years in power and learned lessons from the Arab Spring. Islamic groups that have scored election victories in the wake of pro-democracy uprisings in the region now find themselves trying to allay fears they want to impose Islamic rule.
Since seizing Gaza, Hamas had largely silenced opponents and tried to impose stricter religious rules on an already conservative society.
However, in recent months, there has been a change in atmosphere, say rights activists and even political rivals of Hamas.
“Things are freer than before,” said Nasser Radwan, whose family restaurant is one of the places where women again come to smoke water pipes.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said “some mistakes were made” under Hamas rule, though he blamed individual security -commanders and overzealous activists, not the government, for heavy-handed tactics.
“Our policy is that we are not going to dictate anything to anyone,” he said.
Hamas legislator Huda Naim said the movement took its cues from the pro-democracy revolts sweeping the Arab world, but had also learned it needs to be more tolerant of others.
It is not clear whether the changes are tactical, or represent a true shift that will lead to more political freedom. Hamas has shut down offices of political rival Fatah, arrested activists and strictly controls the local media. However, in recent months, it has permitted rivals, including Fatah, to stage rallies that were previously banned.
Hamas is the only wing of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood movement that has had a chance to rule, and its performance is of interest following the Brotherhood’s strong showings in recent elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. The Brotherhood faces concerns in the West and among local secular groups that despite their embrace of democracy, they might gradually try to establish strict theocracies.
Top Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who runs the group from Syrian exile, told Gaza leaders of the movement at a meeting in Cairo last month that he was impressed by the political success of the Brotherhood in elections in North Africa.
“Mashaal said we need to learn from these experiences in dealing with other parties and social groups, and that one-party rule is outdated,” a Hamas official said.
Mashaal’s political bureau told Gaza activists in a memo that restrictive measures are tarnishing the movement’s image, said a second Hamas figure. He said the Brotherhood had voiced similar criticisms.
Both men spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal Hamas’ internal discussions.