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Women-only cafes offer new visions of Palestinian public space
Published Saturday 02/11/2013 (updated) 18/11/2013 18:24
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(MaanImages/Alexa Stevens)

RAMALLAH (Ma'an) -- Discreetly located at the foot of a staircase, the cafe offers a familiar scene: shisha pipes are stacked neatly on the counter, ashtrays dot each table, Lebanese satellite television plays in the background and steaming Turkish coffee is served to a table of regulars.

Like many other cafes lining the busy avenues branching off of Ramallah’s bustling Manara Square, this is a gendered space. Male employees stand guard outside, surveying the entrance of the cafe with stern eyes.

Unlike most public establishments in Ramallah, Ladies is a cafe for women only.

When the cafe opened in early 2012, it was the first women-only cafe in Ramallah. As in most cities in Palestine, cafes in Ramallah are primarily a men-only affair. Many cafes and restaurants have mixed clientele and some even have delineated "family" sections, but for the most part women rarely frequent cafes on their own.

Ladies promised to provide a different experience, one that barred male clientele and instead offered a public space intended exclusively for women. The hope was that in a society where cafes are traditionally geared towards men, the creation of a women-only cafe would offer women equal access to the public sphere, but on their own terms.

Cafe owner Jamil Ali explains that in a woman-only space, women can feel comfortable and take off their scarves, smoke cigarettes and sit with their legs crossed, unlike in male-dominated cafes where these behaviors might draw attention.

"She doesn’t want anybody to look at her," he says. "A thousand eyes will go to her, a thousand eyes." But in a public space frequented exclusively by women, she is free to unwind in a comfortable setting.

In addition to creating a space accessible to women, Ali also sought to ensure that the cafe be economically accessible to a female-only clientele. As he explained, many mixed cafes charge prices out of reach for most Palestinian women. Although the entire menu was originally priced at 10 shekels ($3), after realizing that the prices were still too high for some patrons, the price of drinks were lowered to seven shekels ($2).

"Women don’t have to be on their guard."

Unlike Jamil Ali, Susie Atilla didn’t set out to create a women-only space three years ago when she co-founded Diva, a cafe patronized predominantly by women inconspicuously located off of a main street in Bethlehem.

Atilla was originally encouraged by the male owner of the commercial center where Diva is located to open the cafe there because a number of other female-oriented businesses had locations nearby. Among Diva’s neighbors are a gym, hairdresser and a Turkish bath.

She explains that even though the cafe was open to a mixed clientele, "the reputation spread that it’s only for women."

"Some men get really embarrassed to come with their wives but we always tell them men and families are welcome!" she adds with a chuckle.

Susie and her sister, Nancy, started Diva as a project meant to provide them with an income for after their retirement from their day jobs. They hoped in the process to create a place where they and their friends could come and socialize.

When asked about Ladies cafe in Ramallah, Atilla smiles.

"It’s great for girls to be able to feel comfortable," in a cafe like Ladies. "Women don’t have to be on their guard."

She emphasizes that even though its location is somewhat isolated, Diva offers "privacy," and a place where women feel comfortable.

The sentiment was shared by many patrons at Ladies interviewed by Ma’an.

A patron from the US uses the cafe as a space for lessons with teenage Palestinian girls she tutors. The parents of the girls, she says, feel comfortable knowing that the cafe only serves women and thus offers a secure public meeting spot for young girls.

Many of the students’ parents usually only allow their daughters to go to school and come home, the tutor says, but when they heard about the cafe they welcomed the idea.

She concedes, however, that gender-segregated cafes "enforce the idea that girls have to do things in secret."

A Palestinian woman at the cafe adds, "It’s sick, the separation thing. Ramallah is better (than other cities in Palestine, but) you still find people who won’t let their daughters or wives go places."

This customer tells Ma'an that she sees a women-only cafe as another example of the kinds of separation between genders that persists in Palestinian public space.

She adds that the cafe’s decision to serve an exclusively female clientele furthers the gender divide between men and women in public spaces.

"The society and the mentality of the people is not going to change soon," she says with a shake of her head.

Creating public spaces for women

Both cafes, though quite different in mission, have become spaces for women located in a larger urban context that offer comfort and privacy for their patrons. Neither cafe set out to change the fabric of Palestinian society, or the fact that most public establishments primarily cater exclusively to men.

Rather, each cafe acknowledges the realities of a male-dominated public sphere by offering a place where women can feel comfortable.

Even though all-women cafes like Ladies "(enforce) the separation," a Palestinian patron says, they can also be seen as "a solution that make things easier for some part of society."

And for the many women who frequent Ladies and Diva, but feel uncomfortable or unable to patronize male-dominated establishments, these cafes offer a unique and inviting alternative that offers comfort, privacy, and access.

Atilla, the owner of Diva suggests that "some women in society feel like they need to have a place that is private and that’s where they feel comfortable."

Alex Shams in Bethlehem contributed reporting.
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1 ) Kishka / Albania
02/11/2013 21:41
On the East Bank in Jordan, Amman's women smoke their shishas in together in male company. This one assumes is done without ''feeling uncomfortable or unable to patronize male-dominated establishments''.

2 ) Brian Cohen / Israel
02/11/2013 23:51
One day Palestinain women will have equal rights and not fear men harassing them for simply wanting to drink coffee with a friend in a cafe. Palestinian society has a long way to go to reach standards that justify the billions in aid from liberal taxpayers (aka Europeans, Americans and Japanese) who would be shocked if they know how anti-women Palestine is.

3 ) southparkbear / usa
03/11/2013 00:32
jordan's palestinians are much more advanced and smart than those in gaza or the west bank whom jordenians consider as losers

4 ) Outlier / USA
03/11/2013 02:08
A step forward or a step back?

5 ) Dear / Brain
03/11/2013 15:05
One day Palestinain women will have equal rights, TO WHO PALESTINIAN MEN. BUT NOT TO ANY ISRAELI. ISRAEL WILL NEVER ALLOW THAT.

6 ) Brian Cohen / Israel
03/11/2013 16:57
Dear #5 Arab women in Israel are full citizens and have the right to vote, serve in parliament, or drink coffee in any restaurant of their choosing anywhere in the country. I suggest you meet me tomorrow in the Malha Mall in Jerusalem and you will see Palestinian women drinking coffee in the same restaurant as Israelis. I despise propagandists like you who spread lies based on your hatred. Can I go drink coffee in Gaza or Ramallah without being lynched?

7 ) Colin Wright / USA
03/11/2013 23:42
To Brian Cohen #6: 'Dear #5 Arab women in Israel are full citizens and have the right to...' Ah. Well then. I'm sure you'd feel confident asking them if they like Israel just fine or would prefer a Palestinian state. Their answer would be pretty predictable. I'm sure they're positively grateful for the Zionist boot in their face. In fact, why don't you extend the right of return to their poor excluded sisters? I'm sure it would strengthen Israel -- bringing in so many natural supporters.

8 ) Colin Wright / USA
03/11/2013 23:47
To Brian Cohen #6: 'Dear #5 Arab women in Israel are full citizens and have the right to vote...' Actually, this raises a perplexing point. Since 'Arab' women are so fortunate to be under Zionist rule, and since they would make up at least half the Palestinian vote, and since the ballot is secret, it would follow that the Palestinian parties must be among the most enthusiastic supporters of Israel. Perhaps they're all closet Likud voters. What do you think?

9 ) Colin Wright / USA
03/11/2013 23:50
One of the ironies here is that the cafe strikes me as a constructive step forward in reconciling the mandates and assumptions of Islam with the modern world...not necessarily an end point, but certainly progress, in the best sense of the word. However, all the Zionists can find in it is a platform to promote their agenda of lies.

10 ) Brian Cohen / Israel
04/11/2013 10:31
Colin - we're tiring of your constant whining about zionist this and zionist that. Why don't you concentrate on breaking up America and giving your home back to its rightful owners? Seriously, you'd think that anybody like who who objected so strongly to "Zionist occupiers" would be working hard to get the occupied territories back into the rightful hands of the Huron, Navajo, Hopi, Cherokee, Sioux, Mowahks and dozens of other occupied nations. You're a fraud, Colin.

11 ) Dear / Brain
04/11/2013 11:21
Would love to meet you in Jerusalem, but unfortunately your LOVING and CARING government had banned me from that totally democratic state for 10 years.

12 ) Tony / Brazil
04/11/2013 19:11
Brian is so ignorant. He would be welcome in Ramallah and Gaza if he was coming to have coffee in a cafe. Many Israelis come and join protests against the occupation, they are not lynched. There are some Jews living in the West Bank, they are not lynched. But if Brian comes to Ramallah like a settler carrying a machine gun and saying Palestinians must leave because they are not Jews, then he comes at his own risk.

13 ) Tony / Brazil
05/11/2013 06:27
I do not think Brian would mind entertaining a German in his home, but if that German happened to be a Nazi it might be a problem. Brian, you little racist colonial experiment is going to fail sooner or later. Its not too late to renounce racism and your master race mentality. Think about it before its too late and you face the same consequences of those who went down this path before you.

14 ) RealityCheck / World
30/11/2013 05:02
#12 Funny how you mention jews aren't lynched when they come to Ramallah and join protests against the occupation. I wonder if you could tell us how non anti-Zionist jews are greeted in Ramallah. Browse through the site, there must be 100 articles dated within the last year about Palestinians stoning Israeli's. They lynch in Palestine like its an Olympic sport so go sell crazy somewhere else.

15 ) RealityCheck / World
30/11/2013 05:05
#9 "However, all the Zionists can find in it is a platform to promote their agenda of lies." No, I'm pretty sure most cafe's are there to make $, not promote an agenda of lies. However, speaking of promoting an agenda of lies, how goes the posting Colin.

16 ) Colin Wright / USA
21/12/2013 12:39
To RealityCheck #14: ' I wonder if you could tell us how non anti-Zionist jews are greeted in Ramallah. ' They're probably greeted about like how non anti-Nazi Germans would be greeted in Israel.

17 ) RealityCheck / World
29/12/2013 04:43
Well there lies the problem, the Nazi's systematically killed 6 million jews and exterminated them, claimed Jews were subhuman, and even went so far as forcing them to constructs their own gas chambers. If an ordinary Israeli is perceived by Palestinians in the same way that Israeli's would view a Nazi, that's truly sad. Comparing Nazi atrocities to what goes on in the "occupied territories" is like comparing apples to oranges, no matter how many parallels you think you see between the two.
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