RAMALLAH – Twenty-year-old, hijab-wearing interior design students Yusin and Tamara have escaped the catcalls of downtown Ramallah to smoke water pipes at Ladies’ Café, a “women only” underground hangout discreetly located below a candy store.
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Most cafés in this working-class area are unofficially reserved for men, where “if we were to sit and smoke shisha, a hundred eyes would immediately look at us thinking it’s a kind of taboo – it’s only for men,” explains Tamara as her friend nods in agreement. Though they tell me they come from relatively liberal families, they and many of the women I interviewed ask that only their first names be used.
Their waitress, Ruba, a 26-year-old recent college graduate from a village near Nablus, says the space was envisioned precisely for such young women fighting to break into an economy and a society still dominated by men.
“They can take off their hijabs, talk freely about their studies, their business plans, and socialize together after work,” says Ruba, adding that she herself comes here after her seven-hour shift at an accountant’s office. There, like most Palestinian workplaces, sexual harassment is neither discussed nor addressed. “Palestine is traditional, so women need more relaxation and to be more comfortable,” she says.
Though young women outperform their male peers in high school and make up half the student population at West Bank universities, only 17 percent are working, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics – a modest number when compared to the rest of the region.
And while tech startups and other high-skill industries have slowly been integrating female workers, women-only establishments like Ladies’ Café offer something completely different.
Ruba says working here for a symbolic seven shekels ($2) an hour has helped her overcome a gnawing feeling of frustration and guilt. And it has let her meet women who share her experiences.
Her story is a common one – she spent years and precious funds to pursue a degree in her passion, biology, only to find her economic prospects limited to dull office jobs, or marriage. A fresh divorcée of only 10 months, Ruba doesn’t fancy being bogged down in either one of those for any longer than necessary.
Hardly a business
While a loyal clientele has praised the café for meeting women’s very real need for a space of their own, critics fear it may threaten the modest progress women have made.
“Segregating women from men is not the solution because it does not allow Palestinians to rebuild and redefine a new culture and code, to deal with violations and collective experiences through interaction,” says Itiraf Remawi, acting director of the Bisan Center for Research and Development.
Also, the business model has been unsustainable. Three years in and with rock-bottom prices meant to attract a shaabi, or working-class, population with limited disposable income, Ladies Café functions more as a clubhouse than a business.
Its behind-the-scenes bouncer and owner, Jamil Ali, tells me from a cavernous back room of his ambition to liberalize the Palestinian public sphere. But he says that even in Ramallah, for all its openness to foreign cultures, social conservatism is an obstacle.
“The society here is very afraid,” he says. “They come here accusingly asking me of the propriety of a women’s cafe, saying, ‘Why do they need it?’”
According to Ali, “We also have questions from the more religious people, who don’t like the idea of women having a place to rest, to smoke water pipes, to chat by themselves.”
Women hit the airwaves
While politicians and economists agree that a well-educated, entrepreneurial-minded young population is among the Palestinians’ most valuable resources, unique obstacles associated with Israeli policy – barriers, checkpoints and permit requirements – and economic volatility have limited progress for women to the upper elite, for the most part.
As a response, 96 Nisaa FM, the first-ever women’s radio station in the Middle East, uses the airwaves to connect women on opposite sides of borders, and aims to inspire and inform the public debate on women’s issues across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Programs at Nisaa, which means women in Arabic, range from features on successful female micro-enterprises in both urban and rural areas to Oprah-style advice shows on how women can close the pay gap. Segments like “Qahwa Mazbut” in the morning and “Nisaa wa Iqtisad” (“Women and Economy”) have made it among the five most popular stations in the West Bank. These shows have motivated investors to try to replicate the model in Cairo and other Arab cities.
The journalists at Nisaa’s sleek Ramallah studio are mostly women, but out of a fear of becoming too parochial, they include men in interviews and see men as an essential part of the team, say staff members.
Shyrine Ziadeh, the 26-year-old owner of the Ramallah Ballet Center, agrees that catering only to women mistakes gender inequality as a women’s problem, rather than a Palestinian problem. She also wishes boys would join her ballet class.
It is critical for all young people to be exposed to “a world outside of the occupation,” she says, “because in Palestine we don’t have a lot of positive activities for kids where they can have a creative aspect on life and think about their future.”
Fifty students rake in only enough revenue to pay the rent. Still, watching her girls plié to classical music across her sunny top-floor studio and develop confidence and poise as young women is enough, she says. While she’d love to study abroad and develop her own talents in dance, she could never abandon her kids.
“I have a vision that I will have more girls,” says Ziadeh. “I didn’t know it, but I’m creating a new generation with them.”