Why does Gaza have a cafe just for women?

A new cafe that only admits women has opened in Gaza. It's one of several in the Middle East and is designed to be a public venue where women can meet comfortably in a culture that values women's privacy.

Ammar Awad/Reuters
Palestinian women sit together at a newly opened cafe in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Several Palestinian women in Gaza have just opened a cafe that serves only women.

Gaza's new women-only cafe aims to support Palestinian women by giving them a safe venue to meet in a culture that values a woman's privacy.

Manager Nidaa Mhanna opened Noon this September in Gaza. With support from her father and husband, she decided to open some kind of business that would promote and support fellow Palestinian women. She decided a cafe would be a safe place for women to visit without awkward stares, the Al-Monitor reported. 

"I thought about my sisters Nagham and Nihaya and decided to open the cafe to enhance women’s privacy, as they do not feel completely comfortable in restaurants and cafes with a mixed clientele," the cafe manager, Nidaa Mhanna, told Al-Monitor. "If a woman laughs or talks loud, everybody around her notices."

The cafe sells Nescafe, tea, coffee, juice, and sweets, but also handicrafts, make-up, and underwear, in case women would rather not buy such items from male storeowners elsewhere. 

Several patrons of the cafe told Al-Monitor they enjoyed the experience, with one saying it enabled her to breast-feed comfortably, but some have said the cafe encourages sexism or gossip. Shareef Hassan, an Egyptian now living in Texas, says in an interview it's not something he's seen before, and he finds the idea a little odd. He says he could not imagine his sister, for example, wanting to go to such a cafe. 

Gender-segregated facilities are not completely unheard-of, however, in the Middle East, where a certain amount of gender separation outside of families is a cultural norm. Some schools offer a women's lounge, which enables women who wear veils to study and eat their lunch at school. A cafe for women opened in 2003 in Amman, Jordan. Called Sabaya, or "girls," cafe, the only men allowed on the premises were a blind male musician and several cooks, who were not permitted inside the cafe area itself, Arab News reported.

One selling point was that it enables women like Rafika, who wears a face veil, to eat without her veil on, because only women are present.

"Here I am free to smoke the narguileh and talk as I please without any of the constraints of a mixed cafe," Rafika told the Arab News.

For unknown reasons, the Jordanian cafe closed down, but a few others have opened since. A similar cafe opened in Yemen in 2013, offering food, a library, and internet-access to Yemeni women, and an Israeli Arab town in northern Israel overcame opposition to open a women-only cafe earlier in 2015, Haaretz reported.

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