GAZA CITY // More than three weeks after Hamas banned men from cutting women's hair, Adnan Barakat, one of the Gaza Strip's few male hairstylists for women, was still running his female-only hair salon. "They haven't officially told me to close yet, so what will I do?" said Mr Barakat, who is 45 and has been cutting women's hair for 26 years. "I will keep working."
Hamas seized power from its secular Fatah rivals after a series of bloody street battles in Gaza in 2007. At first, the Islamist movement largely shied away from implementing Sharia, or Islamic, law in the territory. But in recent months, the government has stepped up its campaign to protect Islamic values, including a decision requiring female lawyers to cover their hair in court, an Islamic-inspired dress code for schoolgirls and the recent ban on male hairdressers for women.
In conservative Muslim tradition, it is haram, or forbidden, for a woman to expose her hair to a man who is not a blood relative. At least 90 per cent of Gaza's 1.5 million people are Muslim, and Hamas officials say the law affecting male hairdressers is simply a reflection of the society's conservative Islamic beliefs. Men and women are largely, but not completely, segregated in Gaza. "In Gaza, we are conservative, but we are not fundamentalist," said Khalil Abu Shammala, director of the Al-Dameer Association for Human Rights in the Gaza Strip.
"People in Gaza regulate their behaviour based on tradition. They don't need laws to tell them what to do. But Hamas has its own agenda, which is an Islamic one." In Mr Barakat's modest yet modern salon, tucked in an upscale neighbourhood in Gaza City, his female clientele tell a different story, at odds with the Hamas narrative. "There are members of my family who say I should not have my hair cut by a man," said 23-year-old Ruba Zayed, who was having her hair coloured with blonde highlights for her engagement party the following day. "But I am comfortable with Adnan, he is not a bad man. And he is very professional."
Young Palestinian women sit unveiled at his salon, their hair exposed to dryers or wrapped in tin foil, their bare, brightly-painted toes soaking in foot baths. Mr Barakat, clearly both happy and comfortable in his work, moves blithely from client to client, snipping rapidly at the hair of one, blow-drying the hair of another. On this day, the electricity has been cut, so Mr Barakat runs his salon with a loud, diesel-fuelled generator. Plastered on the walls are ageing posters of western women with trendy haircuts and heavy make-up.
Mr Barakat admitted most women in Gaza are not comfortable with allowing a male stranger to cut their hair, but says his female clients span the full range of Gazan society, including Christians, the wealthy, aid workers and civil servants in the Hamas-run government. Some of his clients, he said, sneak away from their husbands to come to his salon. "I'm like a doctor or an athlete, or a mechanic in a garage," Mr Barakat said. "It's my work, it is not romantic. If I had bad motives, like Hamas says, would I have customers for 26 years?"
At the salon across the street from Mr Barakat's, which is run by Hatem al Ghoul, another male hairstylist for women, Islamic extremists planted two firebombs since the Hamas takeover in 2007, causing damage but no injuries. A growing number of local Islamic jihadist groups are believed to be responsible for several bomb attacks on hair salons, coffee shops and internet cafes in Gaza, and have threatened to take on Hamas for failing to implement a strict interpretation of Sharia law.
Analysts say the groups are pressuring Hamas to prove its Islamist credentials to the local population. Mr al Ghoul, a self-described "cosmopolitan Muslim" who dresses in leather jackets, tight jeans and stylish boots, said the Hamas police never followed up with an investigation into the attacks, nor did they offer him further protection. "Hamas has guns, and they have members, but where is the law?" said Mr Abu Shammala, of the Al-Dameer human rights association.
"Their parliamentary term expired, so where is the legal authority for all of these decisions?" Gaza's five male hairdressers sought out legal help from lawyers at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza, to seek clarification and call on Hamas to rescind the decision - even if they have yet to be shut down. Ehab Ghussein, the Hamas interior ministry spokesman, refused to say when and how the Hamas government would enforce the decree.
Mr Barakat and Mr al Ghoul, and the other male stylists say they are not ready to back down. Mr Barakat said if his business collapses, he is considering making house calls or opening an underground salon in his home, "like under the Taliban in Afghanistan", he said. "If Hamas makes Adnan stop working, I won't go to anyone else, I will just go to his home so he can do my hair," said Razan Nofar, 16, who is Muslim but does not wear the headscarf. "Hamas can't control everything, can they?" * The National