GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Gaza's Islamic Hamas government on Thursday banned men from working in women's hair salons, the latest step in its campaign to impose strict Islamic customs on Gaza's 1.5 million people.
Since seizing Gaza in 2007, Hamas has taken steps in that direction while avoiding a frontal assault on secularism. The majority of Gaza residents are conservative Muslims, but Hamas is under growing pressure from more radical groups to prove its fundamentalist credentials by imposing ever harsher edicts.
The latest measure irked one of the victims of the ban.
"Next thing you know, they will ban doctors from treating women, and will only let women treat women," said Barakat al-Ghoul, a 44-year-old hairdresser. "Tomorrow, they will ban everything."
Al-Ghoul, who has cut women's hair for 26 years, said a ban would be devastating. He said he has no other way of making a living.
Islamic tradition forbids women from showing their hair to men who are not their husbands or blood relatives. Until now, though, exceptions were made for the eight known male hairdressers in women's salons in Gaza City.
Mohammed Fares, a salon owner who employs only women, said the first salons for women sprang up in Gaza in the 1950s.
Some of the male stylists have a devoted following, and their customers accept long waiting periods to get appointments.
Fares said Hamas' new ruling takes away one of the last remnants of a more liberal lifestyle in Gaza that flourished decades ago, when the territory had cinemas and bars.
Since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, small ultra-radical Islamic groups have sprung up. Known as Jihadi Salafis, they advocate holy war and a strict, fundamentalist brand of Islam, dismissing Hamas as too pragmatic. They are suspected in dozens of bombings of Internet cafes, music stores and other alleged purveyors of vice. All cinemas and bars closed years ago.
Fares said a small pipe bomb was recently set off outside a male hairdresser's shop, as a warning for him to stop working. Hamas is moving gradually to impose Islamic customs. In the summer, the Islamic group promoted a "virtue campaign," urging women to cover up and sending out beach patrols to enforce modest attire.
However, Hamas is also sensitive to public opinion, and in response to criticism reversed a decision to force female lawyers to wear headscarves in court.
The Hamas police announced the ban on male hairdressers Thursday on their Web site, citing the Interior Ministry. The statement said those violating the ban would face legal consequences but did not elaborate. Interior Ministry spokesman Ehab Ghussein could not be reached for comment.
Al-Ghoul, the soon-to-be-unemployed hairdresser, said he fears he'll be sent to jail if he keeps working. He insisted he is not violating Islamic custom.
The windows of his shop in Gaza City's upscale Rimal neighborhood are mirrored, so people cannot look inside. In fact, he only agreed to a phone interview because his female customers wouldn't let a male reporter enter the shop.
"I'm in the shop with customers, it's true," he said. "But I only work with their hair. I don't do makeup or eyebrows. I don't touch sensitive areas."