Bans on women smoking water pipes in public and male coiffeurs styling women's hair are no longer being strictly enforced in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, apparent signs of greater tolerance as the Islamic terrorist group acknowledges mistakes in seeking to impose a religious lifestyle.
In explaining the change, several senior members said Hamas has matured in five years in power and learned lessons from the Arab Spring. Islamic groups that have scored election victories in the wake of pro-democracy uprisings in the region now find themselves trying to allay fears they seek Islamic rule.
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Since seizing Gaza, Hamas had largely silenced opponents and tried to impose stricter religious rules on an already conservative society. Modesty squads asked young couples seen in public to show proof of marriage, told beachgoers to put on more clothes and ordered shop owners to cover up mannequins. High school girls came under pressure from teachers to wear headscarves.
In recent months, there's been a change in atmosphere, say rights activists and even political rivals of Hamas.
"Things are freer than before," said Nasser Radwan, whose family restaurant is one of the places where women again come to smoke water pipes.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said "some mistakes were made" under Hamas rule, though he blamed individual security commanders and overzealous activists, not the government, for heavy-handed tactics.
"They don't represent the ideology and policy of the Hamas movement," Barhoum said. "Our policy is that we are not going to dictate anything to anyone."
'No one asked me about it again.' Schoolgirls in Gaza (Photo: AP)
Huda Naim, a Hamas legislator, said the movement took its cues from the pro-democracy revolts sweeping the Arab world, but also has learned it needs to be more tolerant of others.
It's not clear whether the changes are tactical, or whether they represent a true shift that will lead to more political freedom. Hamas has shut down offices of political rival Fatah, arrested activists and strictly controls the local media. However, in recent months, it has permitted rivals, including Fatah, to stage rallies that were previously banned.
There are no signs Hamas is softening its stance toward Israel - the movement refuses to recognize the Jewish state or rule out violence against it - or that it is breaking its alliance with financial benefactor Iran and with Syria, its longtime host. Hamas has reduced its presence in Syria following President Bashar Assad's crackdown on anti-government protesters, but continues to maintain a foothold there.
'Some mistakes were made.' Barhoum (Photo: AP)
Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, defeating Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction. After failed power-sharing attempts, Hamas seized Gaza a year later, defeating Abbas' forces and leaving him with only the West Bank. Acrimony intensified as dueling governments in the two territories cracked down on rivals.
Hamas is the only wing of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood movement that has had a chance to rule, and its performance is of interest following the Brotherhood's strong showings in recent elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. The Brotherhood faces concerns in the West and among local secular groups that the Islamists, despite their embrace of democracy, might gradually try to establish strict theocracies.
Two prominent Hamas figures in Gaza said change was being encouraged by the Brotherhood. The movement's leadership in Egypt confirmed contacts, but denied it's telling Hamas how to govern.
Top Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who runs the group from Syrian exile, told Gaza leaders of the movement at a meeting in Cairo last month that he was impressed by the political success of the Brotherhood in elections in North Africa. "Mashaal said we need to learn from these experiences in dealing with other parties and social groups, and that one-party rule is outdated," a Hamas official said.
Mashaal's political bureau told Gaza activists in a memo that restrictive measures are tarnishing the movement's image, said a second Hamas figure. He said the Brotherhood has voiced similar criticism.
Both men spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal Hamas' internal discussions.
Egyptian and Tunisian members of the Brotherhood visited Gaza, and Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas has spoken by phone more than a dozen times with Mohammed Badie, the Brotherhood chief in Egypt, Haniyeh's office said.
Rashad Bayoumi, a senior official in the movement in Egypt, confirmed the contacts, but said they focus on the need to end the internal Palestinian split. He denied the Brotherhood has criticized Hamas' domestic practices or urged it to dial back Islamic zeal. "We do not interfere at all in politics with Hamas," he said.
Fawaz Gerges, head of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, said he believes the Brotherhood is moderating Hamas, but that the Islamists in Gaza are also evolving. "They realized that their wooden rhetoric no longer applies, that in the aftermath of the Arab Awakening, Palestinian public opinion demands a different behavior," he said.
Issam Younis of Gaza's human rights group Mezan said that in recent months he's seen a drop in complaints about harassment by Hamas security forces and that restrictive rules are no longer being enforced.
At the beginning of the school year, when some high school girls complained about being ordered by principals to put on headscarves, the Education Ministry told schools that the girls are free to choose, he said.
Eighth-grader Inas Abu Shaban, 14, said her principal initially told her to wear a headscarf. "I put it on the first day, but not the second day, and then no one asked me about it again," she said.
At a beauty parlor in Gaza City, the shop's male owner said he doesn't trust the new tone.
"They say one thing and do another," said the coiffeur, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. "I work, but I'm afraid."