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In Gaza, Christian Girls Feel Pressure to Wear Islamic dress
By
Judith Sudilovsky
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Sunday, September 27, 2009
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JERUSALEM—Christian girls in the Gaza Strip are feeling pressure to wear Islamic dress in public schools.

An unofficial dress code—mainly for high school girls—calls for them to wear the full "jilbab," a long traditional robe, and a headscarf, said Father Jorge Hernandez of Holy Family Parish in Gaza.

"For most of the schools it is an absolute condition for admittance, so many female Christian students must go (in robes), fully covered, with disregard to the fact they are not part of the Muslim tradition," the priest told Catholic News Service.

Most Christian children in Gaza attend church-run schools, but there is a tiny minority of Christian students in the government-run schools, he said.

"Even if there are only two or three Christian students in government schools that is a problem," he said. Concerned parents turned to the priests and pastors of Christian churches in Gaza for help, he said. He added that his parish high school took 10 new female students at the beginning of this year.

Father Hernandez said that at the start of the school year a rumor made the rounds in Gaza that the Hamas-run Ministry of Education would impose a dress code, mainly for high school girls. In mid-September the ministry said it had not officially authorized the policy, said the priest, noting that officials did not come out and condemn it.

"Of course no one could come out publicly against such a practice, so while officially there is no such dress code, practically there is," said Father Hernandez.

One Christian girl attending a public high school told CNS that at the beginning of the school year she faced indirect pressure—public scorn and stares from her teachers—to wear a jilbab.

Her class of 42 has nine Christian students, the only Christians in the whole school, she said in an e-mail from Gaza. The girl, whose spoken English is weak, asked to write her responses to questions from CNS in an e-mail. She also asked that her name not be used.

The teachers tried to convince the Christian girls to wear the jilbab by quoting verses from the Quran that said this is the best way for a woman to dress, she said. Most of the girls refused to succumb to the pressure, she added.

One Christian classmate was applauded when she wore the jilbab and scarf, the student said. She added that she later convinced her friend to remove the robe and scarf by emphasizing that if she accepted it willingly now, it might be imposed legally later.

She said Muslim girls who refused to wear the jilbab were "treated badly" and were instructed to bring their parents to school. When the parents met with the principals it was agreed that the students would not have to wear the jilbab.

"But there are very few" Muslim girls who don't wear a jilbab, she wrote.

The schools have since lowered the pressure and the female students are theoretically permitted to wear their regular, modest clothes, she said.

"As if we were 70 years old!" she wrote. She said she was afraid this might be just the tip of the iceberg and other restrictions might be imposed on the Christians.

In a telephone interview, one Christian young man from Gaza said the dress requirement "has nothing to do with us (Christians) but no one can talk (against it) or try to refuse. But it is difficult. It is so tough, especially for girls. Girls don't go outside in Gaza.

"We (Christians) are a minority," he added. "This is what we have in Gaza. We can't change anything."

Although outside the schools there are no dress limitations, most Christian girls normally just stay in their homes or visit friends, he said, as there is no other place for them to go.

Father Hernandez said people know the dress requirement "is the Muslim custom and nobody is against it, but we think it is our complete right to request that we be allowed our own custom of dress. That is not part of our tradition (as Christians)."

He said that, for years, many Christian women have covered their heads with scarves when they go out to shop in the markets as a sign of respect for the tradition of the Muslim majority. For years, female students who attended college in Gaza have known that they are expected to wear scarves on campus, he added.

"That has already become part of normal life," he said. "But we see it as extreme to impose that as a condition for an education."

"That's the real reaction of many Christians: resignation. Nothing can be done. It is unfortunate and very sad. What we have been able to do as churches we have already done," he said.


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