Human Rights,  Law

Asylum Seeker

This is an extract from the judgment of the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal in a recent case. The circumstances of this woman’s situation highlight both the importance of asylum, and the grim reality of life for women under the authoritarian rule of Hamas:

After graduating, she worked as a freelance journalist. She managed to obtain commissions because of her experience. This was a paid job. She continued this work until she left Gaza in 2004. She thus worked as a freelance journalist for about 5 years. She mainly worked for Al-Ayyam but also for other newspapers.

Whilst writing at university, she developed an interest in “gender understanding”. This was a social and general problem. Only 11% of journalists were female. There were aspects of Gazan society that posed questions but offered no answers other than gender discrimination.

She became deeply concerned and aware of gender issues. She in fact became recognised as a “woman’s rights advocate”. Her focus was always on how women were being affected. She was concerned with improving the situation for Palestinian women.

She was thus regarded as a feminist journalist although she covered other subjects from time to time. She wrote for magazines as well as newspapers.

[further details of the applicant’s history of education and work]

The Appellant became much exercised about the influence of Hamas, especially when they took power in Gaza in June 2007 and this continues to affect her. She did not claim asylum in 2007 when Hamas took power because she did not believe Hamas would retain power in the region. She thought that they would be ousted quickly. She did not believe they would survive a war with Israel.

She also explained that she was heavily influenced in her claim by the war that commenced on 27th December 2008 and the subsequent problems that arose for her from that date. That war clarified many things for her. She realised that Hamas had ruled Gazan society which has dramatically changed under their rule. The recent war and the manner in which Hamas stood up to Israel made her realise they would never concede power. From June 2007 until the present, she gradually came to realise that Hamas was not only a political institution or party, but much more than that. Gaza has slowly become an Islamic republic and is transforming into an extremist environment.

It is shocking for her that even her brothers still support Hamas despite over 1500 people losing their lives in 3 weeks. Even her brothers cannot accept that other people can hold different opinions or not follow the beliefs cultivated in Hamas. Having an opinion contrary to Hamas is tantamount to supporting Israel. During the course of her evidence, she explained that she was, for example, strongly opposed to the use of suicide bombers to murder Israeli civilians. She is strongly opposed to the politics of Hamas. She characterises them as self-destructive, violent and counter productive.

She sets out in details her fear of a return to Gaza. She cannot return to Gaza and at the same time write or express anti-Hamas views without being accused of being a betrayer by not supporting Hamas. Nor can she return and remain quiet about what she believes in and write what she wishes to write. She cannot support Hamas and write positively about them. She wishes to continue to express her views and would not be able to do this without fear of persecution were she to be returned to Gaza. All human and political issues are related to Hamas. Everything in Gaza is political. It is not possible to write about one topic without discussing Hamas in relation to that matter.

She was writing about women’s issues and social topics before she left. A woman with her views would be seen as strongly anti-Hamas. She has studied for a long time in the West and has appreciated life there, especially as far as equality between men and women are concerned. Gazan women are told that they are to be killed if they refuse to follow the Islamic expectation that women cover up. Foreign journalists bow to this expectation for the limited period they are there. However, the Appellant would be there permanently and would not have a choice. Originally she intended to return to Gaza at the end of her studies and also intended not to wear a hijab. However, given the resurgence of Hamas in the region which take a hard and uncompromising line, she would be required to wear a hijab or face severe punishment resulting in serious harm to her.

Presently, she does not believe there will be peace while Hamas are in power. She cannot return and live a safe life. Whilst living there, her father was still alive and supported her. Such support is no longer available. Her refusal to requests to wear the hijab would ultimately result in punishment which would be wholly disproportionate to the “crime” committed.

With regard to the recent conflict, she asserts that Hamas has managed to strengthen its grasp over Gaza. She recalled the early years of the establishment of Hamas and how acid was used to terrorise women and force them to wear the hijab. Many were beaten and abused because they refused to conform. She believes that the war could have been avoided had Hamas considered the lethal impact of conflict with Israel. However, Hamas was determined to defend its control, regardless of the price. Hamas is now viewed as a strong force against Israel. It is now characterised on a par with Hezbollah and Iran. She is not only against the political nature of Hamas but also the patriarchal component of its ideology. Even before it took power, Hamas used its presence in mosques to provoke people against changes in the criminal law in 2003. At that time, the Appellant wrote about this topic and sought to explain the moderate effect of the bill.

She stated in evidence that it was one thing to oppose their stance when they were in opposition. However, it would not be possible for her to express her views in such a manner today without drawing attention and a risk of serious harm to herself. She believes that Islam can be understood and interpreted in different ways. Muslim women have usually been the victims of patriarchal understanding and interpretation of Islam. To promote women’s rights against this understanding is dangerous.

She previously wrote about wearing the veil. This occurred when female supporters of Hamas and their members’ wives and relatives contributed to the phenomenon of wearing the veil. She criticised this phenomenon. She was even then blamed and taunted for doing so. She campaigned and wrote about a fairer, modern family law in Gaza. She took her campaign a step further in a case involving a woman demanding the right to divorce her husband. The conventional understanding in Islam was that divorce is the absolute right for men. Hamas still adopts the traditional interpretation of Islam.

She accordingly wrote an article in 2003 about the woman wanting to divorce her husband, who was unwilling. Several years later the court in fact issued a judgment that she should be entitled to divorce her husband. The Appellant claimed that the husband was annoyed and came to her family’s house asking for her. He was violent at the time and her family reported that he wanted to harm her.

The Appellant asserts that during the last few years, Hamas has been more rigid and fundamentalist than ever. Wearing the hijab is universally implemented in secondary schools. It is even widely spread in elementary schools. Girls as young as seven wear it. She believes that imposing a law compelling the wearing of a hijab degrades those women who do not want to conform to the code. She asserts that she stands for what she believes in and does not want to have to compromise her views. Her refusal to wear a hijab is a further “core issue” on her return as she would be spotted as a non-conformist Palestinian woman. She will be confronted by men and asked to cover up. She will be bound to be questioned about her family. Her family would be disgraced and would face pressure. She faces the intolerable choice therefore of conforming, which is unacceptable to her, or an endless cycle of violence which has no limit or end.

The focal point in Palestinian society is the family. Individuals are identified by their families, members of whom would be disgraced or praised depending upon the attitude taken by the other members. Women are not in the decision or policy making process. It is a patriarchal society. This is exacerbated by Hamas holding the reins of power. She states that her brothers have no intention of supporting her against Gazan society. She has previously had difficult experiences with her brothers but her father was a source of protection and support for her. Her mother is even more “patriarchal” than her brothers.

The issue of the hijab is only one aspect of her ‘feminist’ stances. She would continue working for human rights and women’s rights, which contradicts Hamas’s ideology. The effect of returning her would be to oblige her to change from an independent, motivated and ambitious role model to a subordinated wife whose only dream is to produce as many children as possible. She would be seriously harmed or killed for standing up for her own beliefs.

The Appellant has provided summaries of some of her articles in various publications, including Al-Ayyam from 2001 to 2004. She has written articles on women being the weakest link in the criminal law. She wrote on occasion about women being unable to win elections because of the patriarchal society within Gaza. She has written articles on the following topics: a necessary quota to help female candidates win in an election in 2003; the unmixed university; she has been critical of sex segregation in Gaza’s universities; a Norwegian project transforming women’s lives in Gaza in 2004; a critical report for Sout Al-Nissa over the Islamic rule of polygamy; highlighting so-called honour killings in Gaza City involving women; campaigning against forced marriage; complaining about marginalisation of women to corners of mosques with poor health and safety conditions while men enjoy the main part with good conditions and campaigning against the 1954 family law for its incompatibility with current women’s needs. She has written articles complaining about the inheritance law of Sharia insofar as women are discriminated against. In 2003 she wrote an article dealing with the right of a woman to divorce so as to avoid the risk of being trapped in a marriage for years. The giving to men an exclusive right to divorce was discriminatory and another interpretation of Islamic law in this regard should be considered. She has also written about discrimination in other social contexts such as smoking shisha in cafes limited to men only.

In 2001 she wrote an article dealing with what she calls the reality for women journalists in Gaza. She wrote about a conference held in Gaza by Hamas’ women’s office. She referred to the lack of creativity and mere repetition of the common interpretation of Islamic rules regarding women.

In 2004, she wrote about the increasingly visible phenomenon in Gaza of more women wearing the veil as a sign of the popularity of Islamic extremism which appeared to be spreading all over Gaza.

The Appellant supplemented her written evidence by her oral evidence in which she set out her fears and the alleged basis for them. She stated that she decided not to wear the hijab after she left Gaza in October 2004, when she went to the USA. She used to wear it prior to that. She stated that it was the first time she saw how women operated in other societies, including New York. She met and saw different women on her New York course.

I hope that you will share my relief that this was the conclusion of the judge:

Having considered all the material that is before me, I conclude that returning the Appellant would also breach her Article 3 rights under the Human Rights Convention. She would be at risk of inhuman and degrading treatment for the same reasons that she would be at risk of persecution.

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