by Nida' Ibrahim
RAMALLAH, June 4 (Xinhua) -- A few meters away from the popular men's coffee shop of Baladna in downtown Ramallah lays a new rebellious concept: a 'women only' coffee shop.
A billboard featuring three women on the sideways of the street advertises the coffee shop as well as a few radio and newspapers advertisements.
A pink sign right outside the coffee shop reads: "Ladies coffee shop: for women only." As opposed to the open men cafes, the pink and white balloons at the entrance of the coffee shop, lead to a closed, yet colorful place.
A piano, two boxes of playing cards, and a box of backgammon, a popular game among Palestinian men lay in the entrance of the place, as windows were covered with decorative cloth.
The cafe is run and administered by 8 young women, who clean, handle the accounting, and serve fast food, soft drinks and hookah, some of which was decorated with pink.
The girls rely on the food and hookah preparation for a male, the chef stays in the kitchen and calls upon the girls to deliver the order to the table. "We're currently training other two girls to do that job," said Balsam.
The 8 Ramallah girls, whose ages range from 21 to 35, succeeded to make a four-month old idea come true. Balsam Qaddoura is one of the girls behind that idea. "The idea came to me when I was sitting in a coffee shop in Ramallah, I felt the need to hang out in a more comfortable environment," said the 21-year-old English student in Birzeit University.
Her friend Suhad, who asked not to give her full name, thinks of this coffee shop as a big house gathering for girls. "Me and my girl friends used to meet at each other's houses when and parents didn't like it, so we thought of a place that only girls patronize. "
The families supported the girls to carry out the idea as well as with financing the project. No prices were written on the small menu, everything including hookah is sold by 10 shekels, (less than 3 U.S. dollars). This offers a good deal if compared with Ramallah prices for hookah. It can go up to 30 shekels (8.5 dollars).
After the opening, many girls, including those who wear headscarves, came to the place. Other customers came to take a sneak peak at the new enterprise they learnt about from the Facebook group of the cafe.
Balsam says a few males have tried to venture into the no-man zone, but the female employers guarded the place from the un- welcomed costumers. A men selling cherries smiled as he was leaving the place. "Even if we have to let men in, like journalists for example, we ask the permission of the girls," says Suhad.
Sarah, who came in the past two days, brought her friend Doa' to introduce her to the place. Doa', a big fan of hookah, doesn't like to smoke it in public.
There are no restrictions on women in public restaurants. However, social unwritten rules still affect their behavior in public places. For example, hookah-smoking women are more acceptable than cigarette smokers. Also women are rarely seen smoking in the streets.
Sarah thinks this cafe is a great idea, "I used to ask my father to open a place like this, I'm so glad that someone else has thought of the idea."
Both of the girls who are in their 20s say that this place will allow them to meet with their friends in a casual way. "We feel bound by society's boundaries to act in certain ways," Sarah told Xinhua.
Sarah added that she can't laugh in a loud voice or smoke freely in public, "some men don't look at us in a good way if we smoke hookah, and thus we prefer to go to a place for women only."
Not mingling with men was not an issue for these women, as going out with men is not culturally acceptable to the conservative families of these women. "Separation between men and women is also preferred in our Arabic traditions, and our families will be more relaxed when they know we are here," said Doa'.
Samar Mina, a housewife and mother of 4, criticized the idea, " instead of being more modern, we're heading towards a more traditional society."
Balsam disagrees, "the girls have the same right to have a place of their own where they feel comfortable," she said that this place is not a replacement of mixed places. She has a boyfriend that she meets outside; and he is very supportive of her idea.
None of the cafe administers are wearing a headscarf, but it seems like traditional girls will be more attracted to the idea.
Men usually hang out in male only coffee shops, playing cards, watching football games. They also express displeasure when foreign women go into their places. "We feel pressured, we can't shout or curse freely," says Omar Labib, a regular costumer at the nearby Baladna cafe. He doesn't mind the initiative but other men mocked the idea.
Non-coed places are becoming more successful business initiatives. Lately, more gyms, hairdressers, and swimming pools are becoming no-male-zones.
An ad to the female-only Curves Gym suggest that this gym is the perfect place for women as it will give women more time to exercise and less time and pressure to think about their make-up and outfit.
Advocates of Women Rights fear that these places will encourage the separation between men and women, indicating that it also suggests that men are verbally harassing women who don't go by their patriarchal lifestyles.
The future of these businesses seems to be good among the conservatives, but it foreshadows a larger separation of the Palestinian society between seculars, and those who adhere to more traditional views.