GAZA CITY: Afaf al-Najar had found a way out of Gaza.
The 19-year-old won a scholarship to study communications in Turkey, got all the necessary travel documents and even paid $500 to skip the long lines at the Rafah crossing point with Egypt.
But when she arrived at the border on September 21, she was turned away – not by Israel or Egypt, which imposed a 14-year blockade on the Gaza Strip – but because of a law on the male guardianship enacted by the Islamic militant group Hamas, which governs the territory.
“Honestly, I cracked up,” she said, describing the moment border officials removed her luggage from the bus. “My eyes started to leak, I couldn’t even get up. They had to bring me a chair… I felt my dream was stolen.”
Travel in and out of Gaza, a coastal territory home to more than 2 million Palestinians, has been severely restricted since 2007, when Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces. Israel, which has fought four wars with Hamas, the most recent in May, says the blockade is necessary to prevent militants from rearming. Critics see it as a form of collective punishment.
Hamas has repeatedly called for the blockade to be lifted. But in February, a Hamas-run Islamic court issued a notice saying unaccompanied women must get permission from a male ‘guardian’ – a husband, parent or even a son – to travel outside the territory. .
After a backlash led by human rights groups, Hamas authorities changed the decision to drop the requirement. Instead, he said a male relative can ask a court to stop a woman from traveling if it would cause “absolute harm”. Women cannot prevent men from traveling.
Hamas has taken only sporadic steps over the years to impose sharia, or Islamic law, on already conservative Gaza, and even then it has generally backed down in the face of criticism. It does not share the extreme ideology of more radical factions like the Islamic State group.
But the amended law remained in force.
Al-Najar’s father filed a petition and the court prevented her from traveling so he could examine her. She lives with her mother, who is estranged from her father, and says he cut off all contact with her in May. He could not be reached for comment.
Hamas officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group that is deeply critical of the blockade, called on Hamas to lift its restrictions.
“Hamas authorities should lift the travel ban on Afaf al-Najar and the Supreme Judicial Council should withdraw its opinion, so that women in Gaza can travel without discriminatory restrictions,” he said.
After being turned away at the border, al-Najar appealed to a number of local human rights groups, but said they seemed reluctant to help her, fearing reprisals from Hamas. Eventually, she filed a petition against the ban.
Her father failed to show up for the first hearing, which resulted in her being postponed. Before the adjournment, the judge asked her why she was going abroad and suggested that she might as well study at one of Gaza’s universities.
Al-Najar, who speaks fluent English and teaches the language, aspires to become a journalist. She says a multicultural country like Turkey offers opportunities that don’t exist in Gaza, which is largely cut off from the outside world.
The hearing was postponed a second time because her father’s lawyer was ill. It was postponed for a third time on Wednesday because his new lawyer said he needed time to study the case.
The validity of the scholarship has been extended until the end of the year, but if al-Najar does not arrive in Turkey by then, she will lose it.
But she doesn’t give up.
“I realized that no one would help me but myself, and I realized that I had to be strong now to fight for my rights,” she said. “Instead of crying in my room and letting myself down, I decided to fight. I chose to fight for the first time in my life.”