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Middle East

Female lawyers in Gaza ordered to wear headscarf

Gaza's top judge today ordered female lawyers to wear Muslim headscarves when they appear in court, the latest sign that the Islamic militant group is increasingly imposing its strict interpretation of Islamic law on residents of the coastal strip.

Supreme Court chief justice Abdul-Raouf Halabi said female lawyers will be required to wear a headscarf and a long, dark-coloured cloak under their billowing black robes from September.

Halabi said his order was designed to ensure that women dress in accordance with Islamic law, which requires women to cover up in public, wearing loose garments and only showing their hands and faces.

"Showing a woman's hair is forbidden (in Islam)," said Hamas-appointed Halabi.

"We will not allow people to corrupt morals. This (dress code) will improve work in the courts."

Hamas seized power in Gaza in June 2007 and vowed never to impose its conservative values on others. But it has taken a series of steps in recent months that appear to be aimed at forcing residents to accept its Islamic-oriented social agenda.

Police have pressured store owners to cover scantily clad mannequins, and men relaxing on the beach have been ordered to cover up. One secondary girls' school has made wearing a Muslim headscarf and loose robe a mandatory uniform in the upcoming school year.

The Hamas government formally says it is not imposing Islamic law on the territory's 1.4 million residents. Instead, it says it is simply ensuring that residents behave in line with the territory's own conservative culture.

Most women already wear the headscarf, and life in the Mediterranean strip comes to a complete standstill on Fridays as men gather for communal prayers in mosques.

Subhiya Juma, a female lawyer, said the judge's decision would affect only 10 or so lawyers - since the vast majority of the 150 registered female lawyers already cover their hair.

Juma, who does not wear a headscarf, said the point wasn't the number of women, but that freedoms were being eroded.

"This is dangerous - it's a clear violation of the law, it is taking away our personal freedoms - and by whom? The very person who is meant to defend our freedoms," Juma said.