GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Colorful butterflies and flowers adorn the walls of the cafe where ladies sit together for a cup of morning coffee to engage in cordial conversation. In one corner, an Arabian-style seating area is set up, where women and girls gather to read and discuss literary and cultural books. The cafe opens to a small garden planted of Graminaceae (green flowering plants), which creates a soothing outdoor ambiance.
Inside, women have access to a movie theater room equipped with a 3-D flat-screen TV. The room leads to a game room, where women can play a variety of sports or educational games, including billiards, cards, chess, backgammon and dominoes.
Women can enjoy all of this and more at al-Jalaa, an all-female cafe on al-Jalaa Street in the center of Gaza City.
The cafe is managed by three female friends, Heba al-Banna, Douaa Aly and Yasmin Fayez, who were unable to find jobs after graduating from university in light of a 41.7% unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip.
A year ago they decided to open a special coffee shop for women.
The idea was to provide an all-female recreational gathering point that ensures privacy, is in line with the social needs of Gaza’s women and reflects their interests; a place where they can relax, talk and laugh aloud, as most women do not feel comfortable sitting in mixed restaurants and coffee shops.
In this context, Banna, 32, who has a master’s degree in geography, told Al-Monitor, “We opened this cafe Feb. 7 based on the idea of maintaining women's privacy in the community. The cafe closes its doors at night, opening only from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.”
Walking around the cafe, visitors immediately notice the gentle colors and decorative items. Banna asserted that constructing an all-female cafe was a bold and powerful idea, but it required a strong will and motivation, noting that she and her friends were encouraged by their parents to implement their idea.
Aly, 25, said the cafe is a versatile place. “We have a reading section offering a variety of books and novels in a quiet Arabian setting, where a woman can practice her reading and writing hobby,” she told Al-Monitor, adding, “We also seek to issue a literary magazine publishing articles written by our customers and to organize book club meetings and poetry competitions.”
She further added, “We are working on hosting female handicrafts exhibitions to display embroidery, knitting and crochet crafts, and we plan to offer aesthetics courses and workshops for interested customers.”
She pointed out that they aim to promote the role of women in society by organizing training courses on human development, noting that the cafe is the first place in the Gaza Strip that features a billiard table for women in its games section.
In addition to the movie theater section, the cafe includes an oratory, “a place where Muslims can pray. … Restaurants [in Gaza] do not include an oratory for women. Muslim men can pray anywhere, but women can’t,” Aly said.
Banna said the prices at al-Jalaa cafe are minimal, as sandwiches are sold at prices ranging from 3 to 5 shekels ($.80 to $1.40) at most.
She explained that women can bring their meals with them if they want. In that case, they would only pay a fee in return for the table reserved for them.
Veiled women lack a sense of privacy in public places in Gaza, as they are often forced to eat with their veil on or to sit in an opposite way if there are men around, which many women find annoying. But in an all-female cafe, women can remove their veils to enjoy their food, sit and talk comfortably and laugh with their friends.
Fayez, 27, who holds a university degree in sociology, told Al-Monitor, “Women are entitled to a recreational place where they can act freely without the need to be accompanied by a male guardian. There are no places in Gaza where women can enjoy a sense of privacy, as restaurants are crowded with men. Women feel their presence at such locations is socially rejected and are often looked down on when they frequent public recreational places. This is what pushed us to open an all-women cafe.”
Cafes in Gaza have been mostly frequented by men for many years now. This caused Gazan women to search for their own recreational spots to enjoy freedom and privacy, which they often lack in the male-dominated society.
Gazan women believe that men are taking over public places and restaurants and they often view women who visit such places without a male companion as suspicious, which restricts women’s freedom. This falls within the scope of the inherited conservative social culture of the Gaza Strip, which still believes a woman’s place is in her home.
Angie, one of the cafe’s frequent customers, told Al-Monitor, “I liked the idea of a cafe just for us girls, where we can hang out and even celebrate birthday parties with our friends. The games section, especially the billiards table that I love, added a special sparkle to the place.”
Samar al-Rayess, another customer, told Al-Monitor, “The idea of a coffee shop restricted to women, whether in terms of workers or customers, is a modern and innovative idea. This place provides psychological comfort for women and shows that the society in Gaza is keen on preserving women’s privacy and ensuring their well-being.”
In turn, loyal customer Naama al-Hajj explained to Al-Monitor that her husband allows her to visit the cafe for an hour on the weekend. “He said I had the right to do so. I was thrilled. I have finally found a place where I can be myself, as a woman. This is a new experience for Gazan women as restaurants and cafes have been restricted to men for many years,” she added.
Raouf Junaid applauded the idea. His daughters are regular customers at al-Jalaa cafe. “I feel reassured whenever my daughters are at the cafe. I am sure they are having fun there and not being annoyed by boys,” he told Al-Monitor.
The concept of this cafe is coherent with the norms of the society in the Gaza Strip as it provides a private space for conservative women, just like all-female cafes in Saudi Arabia and other countries, which show appreciation for women and preserve their privacy.