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Hamas government appoints first ever spokeswoman

Isra Almodallal, 23, the first woman to be appointed as a spokesperson for Hamas, the conservative Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, speaks during an interview at Hamas information ministry in Gaza City. The appointment of Almodallal as a spokeswoman for the Hamas-dominated Gaza government, which has at times sought to curb women’s freedoms, indicates an attempt by the group to project a new, friendlier face abroad. AP photo

Isra Almodallal, 23, the first woman to be appointed as a spokesperson for Hamas, the conservative Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, speaks during an interview at Hamas information ministry in Gaza City. The appointment of Almodallal as a spokeswoman for the Hamas-dominated Gaza government, which has at times sought to curb women’s freedoms, indicates an attempt by the group to project a new, friendlier face abroad. AP photo

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Hamas government of the Gaza Strip has for the first time appointed a woman to represent it to the world.

The hiring of Isra Almodallal as a spokeswoman for the territory’s conservative Islamist rulers is part of a long-running push by the group, which has at times sought to curb women’s freedoms, to present a newer friendlier face both to its own citizens and internationally.

Almodallal, a 23-year-old who speaks fluent British-accented English, has assumed a post normally held by tough-talking men who voice Hamas’ bitter opposition to Israel. She will be responsible for the Gaza government’s communications with the international media.

“We are looking forward to having a different and unique language,” said Almodallal in an interview in her Gaza City office, on her first week in the job. “We will make the issues more human.”

The change in policy began six months ago when a new head of the government media department, Ihab Ghussein, took over. He hired younger media people, started a new official government website, began rampant use of social media and started conducting seminars and workshops.

Ghussein said he appointed Almodallal in an effort “to be more open to the West.” He said many women were among the dozens of applicants considered for the position.

“Women are partners in our society,” Ghussein said.

Almodallal’s appointment is the latest step by Hamas to manage its image.

“Hamas, as any other government in the world, want others to listen and believe in them,” said Moean Hassan, a lecturer in media at Gaza’s Palestine University.

Under Hamas, there has been mounting social pressure on women to cover up in the traditional Islamic dress of long robes and headscarves. The Hamas government has also banned them from riding on the backs of motorbikes and from smoking water pipes, but these rules have not always been enforced. Earlier this year, the Hamas government barred girls and women from participating in a U.N.-sponsored marathon, prompting a U.N. aid agency to cancel the race.

At the same time, women are permitted to work, drive and hold public office, with one female minister and six female deputy ministers serving in the Hamas government.

Almodallal asserts that women in Gaza are finding their way into politics, medicine, education and media. “Every day, women’s footsteps can be seen advancing more in society,” she said.

She speaks primarily about Gaza government affairs: education and social programs or the Israeli blockade of the territory.

She will not discuss Hamas suicide bombings and other attacks, which have killed hundreds of Israelis over the years. Nor will she be handling the sensitive reconciliation attempts with the rival Palestinian government in the West Bank. Spokesmen for the Hamas movement, as opposed to the Gaza government, deal with those subjects.

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