The revolutionary matriarch of Hamas

Mariam Farhat, a newly elected Palestinian legislator, advocates an Islamist vision.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Although a political newcomer, Mariam Farhat has credentials Palestinian voters couldn't deny: The mother of three militant sons who died in the conflict, she is seen as the mother of all martyrs - and heard as the matronly voice of Hamas.

Now, with Hamas set to take over the Palestinian Authority (PA) following its election landslide in January, Mrs. Farhat won a seat here in Gaza City and has emerged as one of the leading women in the Islamic Resistance Movement - as Hamas is formally known - and could become a force for change that is bound to be welcoming to some and worrying to others.

As a member of the Palestinian legislative council - and someone who could be tapped as a cabinet minister - Farhat says she would rewrite Palestinian school curriculum to remove "infidel" influences. Farhat, in an interview at her home, also says that she will call on Palestinian women, the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslim, to wear hijab, or covering, as instructed by Islam. She also says that armed resistance is the only way for Palestinians to face off with Israel.

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"We know nothing about our own country. We teach the students infidel materials, so why not make changes so we can teach them according to Islamic principles?" asks Farhat, the widow of a police officer and mother of 10, who wears a tightly pinned white head scarf.

"In our schools, religion is totally ignored, so we will encourage studying the Koran and teach Islamic culture in our classrooms," she says while one of her sons kneels in prayer in the adjacent room.

Striving for an idealized Islamic state and looking askance at Western influences, Farhat expresses sentiments characteristic of Hamas's roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1929. But not everyone who voted for Hamas - nor its lawmakers-to-be - shares her view.

Even amid the top echelons of Hamas, many observers see a developing divergence between those who want to encourage moderate Muslim values and those who would make Islamic Revolution-style changes.

Soon after elections, Farhat sent out shockwaves when she said she would call on women to wear head scarves, hinting at the possibility that covering up could become law, as it is in Iran and Saudi Arabia. But Farhat has since been trying to clarify her position: She would "call" rather than "legislate," because in effect wearing hijab is already an Islamic "rule," she says.

"There are two aspects of being committed to Islam," she explains. "One is increasing your faith inside your heart, and the other is the external aspect of being committed: to invite people to do their prayers in the mosque, to love each other, to teach good manners. We will call on women to put on hijab because it is one of the most important external aspects of the Islamic faith.

"There are already so many people in the young generation who will not respect a woman if she doesn't put it on," says Farhat.

It is difficult to tell how actively Farhat and others pushing for a more Islamist agenda will work in the face of the stalemate with Israel and the potential for worsening economic conditions. Some Palestinian analysts warn that Hamas must be mindful of the core issues that got them elected.

"People voted for Hamas not for their beliefs and not for their attitudes toward peace and Israel. They voted for Hamas because they are tired of Fatah and their corruption," says Nabil Kukali, the head of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, in Beit Sahour in the West Bank.

"No one said they voted in order to have an Islamic curriculum or to change Palestinian society to make it based on Islamic principles," he says. "Most Palestinians are waiting to see what Hamas will do on our economic issues, what they will do over recognition with Israel, so I don't know how they could raise these other kinds of issues at this time."

With external issues at a standstill, it is the internal issues that Farhat is most willing to talk about. Hamas's prime minister-elect, Ismail Haniya, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas have been meeting in Gaza in recent days in an effort to come to some agreement on a political agenda, but Hamas's viewpoint has remained steadfast. It wants a continuation of the armed struggle and the possibility of reaching a tactical truce - but never peace - with Israel.

Privately, some Palestinians view Farhat, also known as Umm Nidal (mother of Nidal, her oldest son) warily. Giving one son "to the cause" is considered exemplary; some might say giving three borders on extreme. Two, active in the military wing of Hamas, were killed by the Israelis. Nidal burst into a Jewish settlement in 2003 and shot dead five people before being shot himself.

Farhat kissed him goodbye and endorsed his martyrdom-to-be in a Hamas video he made before the suicidal mission. She was later quoted saying that she wished she had "100 sons to sacrifice."

Farhat stands by her statements, but says that she cries for her children every day. She decided to go into politics for their sake.

"I cannot deny that as a mother I am suffering from the loss of my children, but there are priorities," she explains, as one of her surviving sons sets out tea and baklava on a lace-covered table. "We are occupied, so who should fight the occupiers? If there were other ways of regaining our rights, we would follow them. What we learned from the Zionist enemy is that the only way is resistance."

To be sure, not everybody here is equally convinced.

Eyad Serraj, the head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Center and an expert in children's health here, says that an abundance of religion is already taught in schools; he learned the Koran from the age of 6. But with a Palestinian pedigree such as hers, he says, Farhat is somewhat unassailable: For a Palestinian to criticize her would be like attacking Mom and apple pie.

"She is a symbol because her sons were martyred and martyrs are so glorified here," says Dr. Serraj.

"People are so willing to die for this, and then these people become untouchable and much like a taboo. I think we can bring her down to earth by having her in parliament," he says.

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