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All-women's cafe in opposition-held Idlib stirs controversy

Syria’s northwestern city of Idlib, which is under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, witnessed the opening of its first female coffee shop in what some deemed a type of discrimination against women. Others saw it as an outlet for women to escape the prevailing patriarchy in the Syrian opposition areas.
Eve Cafe, a women's-only cafe in Idlib, Syria.

A coffee shop dedicated to women opened in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib on May 8 with only female workers, waitresses and female clients allowed in.

The opening of the coffee shop sparked controversy on social media outlets among the Syrian opposition. While some lauded the concept, others dismissed it as a step that could empower women.

Many social media users praised the idea and said it gives women a safe space in a conservative society, as it contributes to combating harassment and avoiding dirty looks in public markets and cafes.

Other more radical Syrians attacked this step and called for closure of the cafe, arguing that it contributes to abandoning the veil and disrespecting Islamic law and comes in defiance of society.

Faten al-Mustafa, 45, a school teacher residing in Idlib and one of the founders of the coffee shop, told Al-Monitor, “This type of coffee shop is reserved for women. It is a place where men are not allowed. It provides a space where women can chill and play chess, among a variety of other activities. They can enjoy personal freedom in private, away from the eyes of men. In this cafe, women are far from any kind of harassment and are free to act however they want away from any male criticism, as this patriarchal society dives into the details of women’s lives and appearance, among other matters.”

She added, “This coffee shop does not promote the idea of ​​discrimination against women. This place is all for boosting women’s freedom. Women prefer not to go to restaurants where men work, where they feel ashamed and they may be harassed. In this cafe, all kinds of cold and hot drinks are served. There is also a library where women can read novels and stories. Several reading sessions are held to discuss novels and books, especially those dealing with the conditions of women. Also, women can throw parties in this cafe to celebrate birthdays, graduations and engagements. Most of the cafe clients are university students, knowing that it holds discussions and advisory sessions for women to overcome the difficulties they face in all aspects of life. The Syrian Salvation Government affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham [has yet to contact us], and we hope that this won’t happen in the future.”

Salwa Abdel-Rahman, 38, a feminist residing in Idlib and one of the coffee shop’s clients, told Al-Monitor, “This cafe is a stress relief for us, as we can comfortably drink coffee, hold discussions, and throw birthday parties away from men. We can laugh out loud without being criticized, as is the case in mixed cafes. This cafe offers us an opportunity to exchange ideas that we cannot discuss in public cafes and public places. Women in Idlib struggle on all levels, and yet they have proven their existence despite all the social obstacles. Despite the difficulties they experience as a result of displacement, they are still trying to develop their skills and capabilities.”

She added, “This cafe serves as a psychological safety net for women, as it shields them from men’s noise, comments and criticism and preserves their privacy. It is an ideal place for us, as it is more suitable than our homes where our husbands, brothers and fathers tend to shame us. Over here, women are not ashamed of women. They feel free to suggest ideas and rant. The best thing about this cafe is the phrase ‘Men are not allowed to enter.’ It just tells a lot.”

Rasha al-Shahad, another feminist residing in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “This cafe is a good step that provides a kind of comfort and independence for women away from the noise of mixed places. This cannot be considered a type of discrimination against women. On the contrary, it is a project that is in favor of women. Just like there are coffee shops for men, there is one for women, and this does not imply discrimination.”

Shahad added, “As opposed to the image that is being conveyed, women are not suffering in Idlib. There is no harassment as some try to portray. The opening of this cafe could create job opportunities for many women and allow them to meet each other. The reading section is also not a bad idea. This type of coffee shop gives women more independence, and it may ease many restrictions. These coffee shops may reduce harassment, if any, but I believe that not all cafes and restaurants in Idlib witness such kinds of harassment.”

Fatem Qasra, an Idlib resident and a 23-year-old hairdresser for women, told Al-Monitor, “Allocating a place for women and preserving their privacy is a positive matter that indicates that female conditions in the Syrian opposition areas are improving. I will come to this cafe in order to enjoy the special atmosphere with my friends away from all kinds of restrictions. This can neither be done at home nor in public cafes.”

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