Gaza's Hamas rulers are banning women from smoking water pipes (nargilas) in cafes, claiming it violates tradition and leads to divorce.
The new order went into effect last week, and several cafe owners have been arrested for questioning in recent days under suspicion they have not been enforcing the order.
"It is inappropriate for a woman to sit cross-legged and smoke in public. It harms the image of our people," Ihab Ghussein, Hamas interior ministry spokesman, said in a statement released Sunday.
Police have warned business owners that they face heavy fines if the ban is not enforced.
Police spokesman Ayman Batneiji said Sunday that officers are enforcing Gazan traditions. He said husbands often divorce women seen smoking in public but offered no evidence to support that claim.
Smoking water pipes is a popular habit among both sexes in Gaza. Although it is considered culturally inappropriate for women to be seen smoking them in public, some middle-class ladies smoke the pipes openly, often in mixed company. Even more conservative women can be seen taking an occasional puff of their husbands' water pipes.
"This is silly," fumed Haya Ahmed, a 29-year-old accountant who said she has smoked water pipes for 10 years. "We are not smoking in the streets but in restaurants where only a few people can enter."
She predicted the ban would have the opposite effect of its intention and make water pipes more tempting for rebellious young women.
"Everything forbidden becomes desirable. The decision will lead to more smokers," Ahmed said.
Many Palestinians see the water pipe as inappropriate for women because of its sexual innuendo, and because it looks crass for ladies to smoke, said Palestinian anthropologist Ali Qleibo.
It is not clear how strict Hamas will be in enforcing the ban.
Many residents are deeply sensitive to any effort by Hamas to infringe on the few forms of entertainment available to Gaza's 1.5 million people. Many Gazans pile into beach cafes in the evenings to puff on water pipes well into the early hours.
A cafe and restaurant union representative in Gaza, Ayman Abu Khair, estimated the ban would cost cafe owners some 10 percent of their income. He said owners were not warned before Hamas police barged into their establishments Friday night issuing the verbal order. Abu Khair said the union hoped to challenge the ruling.
Since seizing control of Gaza in 2007, the Islamic Hamas has been trying to impose its strict interpretation of Islam on residents.
Gaza women are forbidden from riding motorcycles with their husbands; women are forbidden from getting haircuts at male hair salons; women are forbidden from walking on the beach without a male family member's accompaniment; and they must wear the hijab and full-length dresses to courthouses, schools, universities.
Some analysts in Gaza have said Hamas is introducing such laws in order to compete with other more extreme Islamist group in the coastal enclave. Some Hamas officials have even gone so far as to call for the adoption of Sharia law in Gaza rather than rule in the same way the Palestinian Authority does in the West Bank.
Some experts have even said that if Hamas does not authorize more hard-line Islamic laws they will lose public support in Gaza to extremist groups.
In recent weeks there have been increasing attacks on Western-linked institutions, including a United Nations-sponsored summer camp.
There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, but sources say the assailants are likely extreme Islamists who view the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, which runs the camp, as a Western body trying to wrestle control over Gaza.
In the past, Islamist extremists have set fire to dozens of Gaza internet cafes, shops that sell alcohol, and libraries and offices of Christian organizations.
The Hamas government issued condemnations of these crimes, as well as the burning of the UN camp, but has yet to achieve any real results.
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