For Arab Women in Israel, a Café of Their Own

At first the Muslim clergy and even the owner’s own mother objected to the idea of a women’s cafe.

Rami Shllush

A sign at the door of a café in Sakhnin prohibits unaccompanied men from entering.

“It’s more comfortable here, I can laugh out loud,” says Ghusun Galya, a hairdresser in Sakhnin who is spending her afternoon break at this café on the town’s main thoroughfare. A friend, Suzanne Shla’ata, who together with her young daughter shares the table, adds that here there is “less pressure, it’s liberating, there’s no one to look at us.”

This is Nisa Café, “the women’s café” in Arabic, which opened in January in this northern Israeli Arab town.

“In our society, especially here in this area, many men don’t let their wives go to cafés,” explains the owner of Nisa Café, Maysoon Raya. She adds that the first thing that most Arab men think, when they see a women in a café, is of a sex object, rather than “women at a work meeting, or simply there for the quiet.”

Raya says that in recent years Western espresso culture has found its way into Arab society in Israel, but not for women on their own or with each other. Women come to her café, she says, when they need a place of their own, where they can talk and laugh without the risk of negative reactions. “It enables older women to go out as well, such as a grandmother with her daughters and granddaughters.”

Rami Shlush

A sign at the entrance says that men are prohibited from coming in alone. During the week the place is strictly for women, sometimes remaining open past midnight, while on weekends families are also welcome. The sign also prohibits hookahs, which Raya says is a sore point. “Some of the women want hookahs, some don’t, and most of the men don’t want women smoking hookahs,” she explains. Her own position is clear, influenced in part by her first profession, as an educator. “I can’t tell teens that it’s bad and to then say, “Look, we opened a hookah bar.”

With or without hookah, there is plenty to do at Nisa Café: It offers lectures, song and poetry evenings and stand-up comedy, and revolving art exhibitions on the walls — all, of course, by women only.

Raya got the idea of showing art from an exhibition she went to in Sakhnin where, she says, “The names of the male artists were written big, outside, and the names of the female artists were inside, on a small sign. It bothered me. We issued a call for submissions that we named, ‘Being Me,’ in an attempt to bring women from the margins into the center.”

This desire for inclusion can also lead to difficult decisions, as when Raya decided not to give too much prominence to the display of books, for reading or borrowing, on the shelves, “so as not to exclude less-educated women.”

Last week, Raya relates, a woman who works as a cleaner came to the café, together with friends from work, while on the other side of the room sat a graduate student. “The variety is thrilling,” she says. Similar considerations came into play with regard to pricing. At first, Raya says, she wanted prices that were average or even slightly higher, to broadcast a message of luxury, but in the end she decided on prices that would allow even disadvantaged women to come and sit.

Hiba Halil, 29, is the shift supervisor and also Raya’s sister. She says that now that she has two children, working at the café suits her better than her previous job working with medical devices at a Haifa hospital. “It’s fun, only women,” she says.

It’s important to Raya that her café provide jobs to the region’s women, and in fact the head chef is the only male employee. He was hired to put together the menu, but stayed on when it became clear that it was difficult to find female cooks to work at night.

Raya says that while the business is successful now, the beginning was rocky. In addition to running the café and raising her two daughters, aged 14 and 17, on her own — she divorced their father 12 years ago — Raya, 40, is doing a doctorate in gender studies and is also a special education counselor for the Arab sector.

Along the way to establishing the café, Raya faced opposition from local Muslim clergy, from Facebook users who made negative comments on the page of the group she started in order to market the idea, and even from her own mother.

“We said it was not the norm. But after she insisted, we were happy and we were supportive,” Raya’s mother, Huria Hlaila, relates, adding, “She presented us with a fait accompli. She’s an adult already.”