Gaza City, occupied Palestinian territories - Beginning this September, girls and boys above the age of nine in the Gaza Strip will be segregated in school under a new law passed by Hamas, which governs the coastal Palestinian enclave.
The law passed earlier this month will also exclude male staffers from working in girls' schools in Gaza. The legislation has been criticised by human rights groups and women's organisations as an attempt to impose Hamas' political agenda on Gazan society.
The new measures are the latest in a series of controversial steps taken recently by the Islamist movement, which has ruled here since 2007.
Walid Mezher, a legal adviser to Gaza's Ministry of Education, told Al Jazeera the Palestinian education system was "organised before by the Egyptian 1933 education law, which is very outdated. It's time for Palestinians to have their own modern law that matches their needs".
Palestinian students learning to speak Hebrew
Regarding the most controversial aspect of the law, which seeks to ban gender mixing in schools, Mezher said this was the case already. The difference now is that it would be law and not merely social tradition.
"Even for the schools which are run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency [UNRWA] and not our government, the two genders are separated based on the Palestinian traditions," he said.
The law will also affect the seven percent of schools in Gaza that are private, including Christian schools. They will need to expand their buildings to be able to hold special classes for each gender. However, the law allows Christian schools to teach non-Muslim students subjects related to their religion.
With 1.7m people, Gaza has 690 schools with 466,000 students.
In a press statement, the Gaza Centre for Womens' Legal Research and Consulting condemned the decision as "gender-based discrimination".
"Such decisions don't help to base Palestinian society on equality and justice, neither do they help the Palestinian cause towards national unity," the statement read.
Another article of the law regulates relations between Palestinian educational institutes and Israel, by banning schools from receiving aid meant to encourage or promote the normalisation of ties with Israel.
The new decision is one of many polarising measures that Hamas has recently taken. Earlier this year, it launched a "Virtue Campaign" aiming to spread Islamic Sharia traditions in Gaza by fighting against "Western" dress and behaviour.
In March, Hamas banned women and girls from participating in Gaza's UNRWA-organised marathon, causing the UN agency to cancel the event in protest. Other Hamas bans prohibit women from smoking water pipes in public, riding on the back of motorcycles, and having male stylists do their hair.
"In the last six years, Hamas has been going forward - and sometimes a step backward because of protests - but there is a strategy to implement the Islamic law in society," said Mkhaimar Abu Sada, a Gaza political analyst and university lecturer.
When Hamas won parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories in 2006, it promised Palestinians it would not interfere with personal freedoms. Two years later, the secular Fatah party ousted the Islamist Hamas movement from the West Bank, after more than a year of skirmishes between the two sides.
"I don't understand why male teachers would be stopped from teaching girls. They are mature and responsible enough to do it."
- Bodour Abu Kwaik, journalism graduate
With Hamas governing Gaza, whose borders, airspace and coast are controlled by Israel, and Fatah in charge of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the social divide between those living in the two territories has deepened.
The new law has only been approved by Hamas lawmakers in Gaza.
In the West Bank, no law exists segregating male and female children, however, most public schools separate students by the fourth grade.
Mezher said sooner or later the division between Gaza and the West Bank would end. "Only then, we can agree on a united law between the two territories."
Other Muslim-majority countries such as Iraq, Jordan, Gulf states, and Pakistan also generally practice gender segregation, particularly for older children.
The majority of Gazans seem comfortable with the new law, because of the conservative nature of society here. Bodour Abu Kwaik, a 22-year-old journalism graduate, said although she supports separating genders at schools, she opposed barring male teachers from working in girls' schools.
"I was educated in separated schools, and I don't think it would be a problem if the law is implemented," she said. "But I don't understand why male teachers would be stopped from teaching girls. They are mature and responsible enough to do it."
Yasmeen Saleem, a 21-year-old psychology student, said she opposed what she described as the government's attempts to impose a specific religious tradition on the people it governs.
"There are mixed and separated schools in Gaza. People should have the choice of where to educate their children," Saleem said.
Follow Abeer Ayyoub on Twitter: @Abeerayyoub
Source: Al Jazeera