Hamas’s First Female Spokesperson: A Vehicle for Unintended Change

Isra al-Modallal is unlikely to do much for the Palestinian struggle, but she'll be great for Muslim women

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Mohammed Salem / Reuters

Isra Al-Modallal, a spokeswoman of the Hamas government in Gaza, talks to the foreign media at her office in Gaza City, on Nov. 11, 2013.

Policies often achieve ends other than those intended. That’s likely to be the case with Hamas’s decision to name a woman, Isra al-Modallal, as its spokesperson for the first time ever. This 23-year-old British-educated, divorced mother of a toddler girl is unlikely to do much for the Palestinian struggle against Israel, as Hamas wants. She will, however, be great for the struggle of Muslim women against Islamic repression.

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Strong women are by no means foreign to the Palestinian movement. For decades, legislator and PLO member Hanan Ashrawi has been an outspoken advocate of the Palestinian cause and perhaps the most visible face of the movement in the West other than Yasser Arafat. Not only does Ashwari have a reputation as a tough negotiator, but she is also known for her fierce independence, resigning from her cabinet position as education minister to protest political corruption under Arafat as well as his inept handling of the Camp David peace talks.

Al-Modallal, by contrast, is a political ingénue barely out of college. Although she has been hired as spokesperson, her main media experience involves two brief TV stints, one at a local university channel. More to the point, her mandate—namely, communicating the humanitarian consequences of Israel’s actions to the Western press—is deliberately narrow. “I will focus on the humanitarian dimension, like the electricity problem,” she says. She is explicitly barred from wading into sensitive issues involving Hamas’ terrorist attacks on Israel or (much to her own surprise given that she was learning Hebrew) even talking to the Israeli press. Unlike Ashrawi, al-Modallal is likely to have no voice in shaping Hamas policy. She will be a mouthpiece reciting narrow talking points.

Hamas primarily wants to use her English speaking skills and her youth to revive its international image after the beating it took when it flirted with a strict imposition of sharia. When Hamas took over in 2007, among its first actions were: requiring women to wear a hijab (head scarf); prohibiting them from smoking hookhas in public (a long-accepted practice in many traditional peasant cultures); banning male stylists in women’s hair salons; demanding that mannequins in store widows be modestly dressed and, most bizarrely, shutting down dressing rooms in women’s clothing stores. Its cadres even roamed the streets harassing women in the company of unrelated men. It has backed off some of these measures, but there is no doubt that Hamas has represented a big step back for the rights of Muslim women.

Al-Modallal, however, might reverse that. Her years in England have tinted not only her accent, but her whole persona. In contrast to Ashrawi, she wears the hijab, to be sure, and maintains, laughably, that Gaza women “have all the freedom we need.”

Still, she projects the air of a modern woman. She listens to non-Islamic music, wears makeup and has a comfort level with men, even shaking their hand in public (imagine that!), all things that are no-nos for Hamas purists. What’s more, she says she is not a Hamas loyalist and could have just as easily signed up with the rival Fatah faction that rules the West Bank. She eventually plans to return to England to pursue law. In short, she has accepted her current assignment not out of any deep ideological commitment but as a career move.

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One can argue that having a liberated, Westernized career woman represent it in international settings is pure hypocrisy on Hamas’ part. But hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue. Hamas will find it difficult to allow al-Modallal to play by Western rules while forcing Gaza women to live by sharia’s rules. In the long term, whether it likes it or not, it’ll be prodded to remake itself in the image it wants to project to the world. Ultimately, its designs might matter less than its actions.