In Gaza Coffee Shops, Men and Women Break Strict Taboos

Amira Hass takes a look at a growing cafe culture that is still seen by some as an act of defiance.

GAZA CITY - A womens association celebrating the end of a management course, combined with a party for the 20th anniversary of the Palestinian declaration of independence is no big deal in itself.

In Gaza, however, the combination of these events last Saturday, at a beachfront event hall, was more than the sum of its parts. It was an overt display of mixing between men and women, both at the tables and on the dance floor.

During the holy month of Ramadan, a number of parties with mixed participation and singing took place at this restaurant, spurning police pressure on the owners to put a stop to them.

The womens association is headed by a senior member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Many of the guests were members and supporters of the PFLP.

The choice of this restaurant was a statement of their position, and a show of support for the owners.

Public dancing, particularly mixed dancing, is considered taboo among the strictest religious circles here, though there are people who will tell you that even here in Gaza some known Hamas activists have been seen dancing at some of the festivities (which had separate dancing, as all events).

The declaration of independence read aloud by Yasser Arafat at a gathering of the Palestinian national council in Algiers on November 15, 1988, has become an asset for the Palestine Liberation Organization.

However while the anniversary was officially observed from Gaza to Ramallah, Hamas has stopped short of attaching the same importance to it as its PLO counterparts.

From the standpoint of the organizers and invitees, the modest party at the beachfront restaurant had turned into a kind of act of defiance.

They not only pulled back their support for the PLO from political and ideological spheres, however they also stuck fast to the social mores associated with the secular traditions of the PFLP.

Some fear that as the Islamist Hamas regime gains more control, greater numbers of social restrictions will be imposed.

They point to the fact that on November 14, a wedding party in the village of Khuza'a east of Khan Younis was forcibly broken up. Only men participated and the family is known to be affiliated with Hamas, but there had been singing at the wedding party.

A group of armed and masked men broke into the place and overturned tables, setting one on fire.

Khan Younis residents believe the perpetrators may have been members of one of the small ultra-religious groups that took advantage of the tense security situation and siege conditions to frighten people and to force extreme religious prohibitions and restrictions on them.

The more suspicious and the conspiracy theorists say that it is possible that these tiny groups are emissaries of the someone in the government. Hamas officials promise that they will not intervene in people's social lives. Indeed, there are restaurants and coffee shops in Gaza city in which there is mixed seating with no interference.

The number of such cafes has grown in the past two years and are frequented by well known members of Hamas.

A member of the local restaurant association explained that the economic situation of the Hamas-supporting public has improved. Hamas has filled a vacuum of tens of thousands of vacant jobs, cleared out both by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who instructed people employed in the public sector outside the health, education and welfare ministries not to go to work, in June 2007, as a condition for receiving a salary and by Ramallah trade unions who declared a strike this September in the government, schools and hospitals in Gaza with PA support.

Another layer of Hamas supporters are those who have become so for pragmatic reasons: to enjoy a regular income tied to the expanding business of the tunnels.

Places to let go

These are the people with disposable income. But the only places for entertainment in Gaza are the cafes and restaurants, which serve as a pressure release for those bored, claustrophobic and worried about the future.

People also flock to the cafes during prolonged electricity outages to make use of their generators and even wireless internet service in some, for the laptops smuggled in from Egypt via the tunnels.

The Hamas regime, like any other government, is interested in creating releases for mounting pressure.

But the 800 people who filled the conference hall in the Rashad al Shawa center on Sunday did not seem to be those who frequent cafes or part of the middle classes.

Most of them had been brought in from the poorer neighborhoods and the refugee camps for a meeting in honor of Independence Day. The gathering was organized by the Leftist Front, a relatively new and unique Gaza coalition of three left-wing organizations: the PFLP, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the former Communist Party - now known as the Peoples' Party. The speeches, long and boring, were the expected fare.

The women were a minority in the hall. The vast majority of them sat down, out of choice, in one bloc, separately from the men. Most of them wore scarves covering their heads.

That is exactly what Hamas contends - separating men and women, and other manners of modesty, do not have to be enforced. It is a demand and an expectation that stems from society itself.

Still, it was surprising to see two women wearing long black cloaks and veils with only their eyes visible in the audience.

When the meeting was over and people began streaming out of the hall, one of these women in black marched to the stairs carrying the red flag of the DFLP.

She said she had joined the organization two years ago because they call for freedom. And as for being covered in ultra-religious clothing, it's just a disguise. She wears that garb so no one will harass her.