Gaza veils reveal turn to Islam

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In the canteen of Gaza's Al Azhar University every woman is wearing a veil. There are coloured veils and and veils with flowers and stripes - as well as traditional white and black. Some sit tight on the brow, while others reveal the hair underne ath. Nobody goes bare-headed on campus, and few go unveiled on the streets. None of these students express a desire to discard the veil - and many talk of their growing commitment to religion, and to the symbolism of their Islamic uniform.

The covered heads at Al Azhar do not bode well for the secular regime of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.Al Azhar is the PLO campus, where students traditionally support Mr Arafat. As such, students here might be expectedto be following the example of Suha Arafat, Mr Arafat's wife, and of Umm Jihad, his minister of social affairs, who both go unashamedly unveiled and speak up for women's rights. While expressing support for Mr Arafat, however, the women here have littletime for the Western concept of women's rights. Many say they would like the PLO to become more religious , not less. "We would like Suha to pray. We would like her to wear a veil like us," said Samira Mohammed, 20, veiled with a black-and-white keffiyeh.

When Mr Arafat established his secular PLO authority in the Gaza Strip six months ago many predicted that rigid adherence to Islamic tradition would recede. The first sign of this new freedom would be a marked increase in the number of Palestinian women giving up the veil.

After Mr Arafat's arrival in Gaza there was a sense of liberation from the social mores of Islam. Women were to be seen unveiled, in Western dress. Once the Palestinian police were on the streets, the people said they would no longer be afraid of Hamas and its religious strictures. Six months later, however, the picture is different.

At Al Azhar University an attempt by a minority of Palestinian students to end the segregation of lessons was swiftly rebuffed by the majority.

As faith in Mr Arafat's authority to bring about progress has diminished, so young people here have turned to religion. Most PLO supporters on the campus insist that their piety does not incline them away from Mr Arafat, or encouage them to join Hamas. Rather, they say, the PLO will become more religious, and that Mr Arafat will "listen to the will of the people".