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Afghanistan: Women-Only Cafes Spark Controversy
A new trend in women-only restaurants in Herat is dividing opinion and raising concern among more conservative figures.
Most women argue that these establishments are a great place to relax without fear of being intimidated or harassed by men.
But some local leaders say they represent a worrying cultural shift in a society where the issue of women’s rights is hugely sensitive.
Attention has focused on the fact that many of these cafes offer hookah or shisha pipes, allowing women access to what has previously been a male pastime.
Many restaurants have long offered these water pipes to customers, who recline on carpets and cushions to smoke dried apples, tangerines and other fruit. The pipes, with a single mouthpiece that smokers pass around, are called chilam-e-miwayee, or fruit hookahs.
Lala, a 19-year-old sitting in a women-only restaurant called Jelwaga-e-Darchin, told IWPR, “I smoked a fruit hookah for the very first time after I had an argument with my father.
“I really wanted to forget what he’d said to me and one of my friends suggested I try smoking so I agreed.
“At first I was little scared and nervous, I felt like I was going to vomit. But now I’m used to it and enjoy it.”
Sahar, one of Lala’s friends, added: “Whenever we went to public restaurants we were often interrupted.
“We were teased by boys for smoking hookahs but we don’t have to deal with that now.”
Over the past year, numerous women-only restaurants have sprung up in Herat city, including Gulhaee Narinji, Gandum, Screentoon, Philadelphia, Muhit-e-Banowan Hareewa and Jelwaga-e-Darchin.
More conservative figures in the province have seized on the issue of smoking as a sign of their malign influence. They argue that women enjoying fruit hookahs demonstrates a moral decline in what remains a deeply conservative society.
“This could harm families and society,” said Abdul Wahab Shams, a sociology lecturer at Herat University, adding that women and girls were especially impressionable. “Women copy each other’s behaviour very quickly.”
Sakina Hussaini, a member of Herat’s provincial council, also described smoking in women-only restaurants as proof of moral decline, and one which risked leading to substance abuse.
“This problem poses dangerous consequences as it could lead to drug addiction. It will harm our youths first, then their families, and finally it will harm the society.”
Others say that they just object to the idea of women smoking at the restaurants. Article ten of Afghanistan’s Tobacco Control Act has banned anyone from smoking in public places including restaurants, guest houses, mosques and madrasases since 2014 – although this is rarely enforced.
Zahra, a 30-year-old resident of Herat, said she fully approved of the restaurants and often used them herself to catch up with friends.
But she agreed hookah smoking carried serious health implications and risked enflaming local cultural and social sensitivities.
“The growing trend for women’s restaurants across Herat is a positive step and we’re witnessing their rise in number every day,” she said.
“But those restaurants who are also offering customers hookahs are wrong to do so. It’s against our social values and it’s better that they didn’t. Many women also aren’t aware of the harm smoking can do.”
Local government spokesman Jilani Farhad also recognised that hookah smoking was becoming increasingly popular.
He said that although local officials were struggling to control to control the phenomenon, police would take action to close restaurants where necessary.
“Smoking hookahs has increased enormously and police as well as the public health department need to address this.
“While we regard the setting up of women-only restaurants as a good idea we will prosecute anyone who allows customers to smoke.”
Jelani Farhad, spokesman for the governor of Herat, also said that the cafes were a mixed blessing, adding, “It’s a really a great initiative, but yes, if hookahs are being used at these places we’ll have to take legal action.
Bahar Durrani, a manager at one of the female-only restaurants in Herat city, said he was only responding to demand.
He said, “If a woman wants to smoke a hookah then she’ll go to a restaurant where it’s offered.
“It’s better that they go somewhere quiet and comfortable instead of a place surrounded by men.”
IWPR spoke to a number of women who enjoyed smoking hookahs but who did not appear to not understand the health issues tobacco is known to cause.
Taiba, 22, insisted smoking posed no risk to her, claiming the fruit-flavoured tobacco she preferred was totally harmless.
“Smoking a hookah isn’t like smoking a cigarette,” she argued. “The substance used in hookahs isn’t harmful to the body because it’s similar to the fruit that many people eat every day to stay healthy.”
Hamani Kaseer, a gynecologist in Herat, said that this was clearly not true.
“We know that tobacco suppresses the human immune system and can lead to infection and disease,” he said. “It’s also a fact that smoking increases susceptibility to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, and that tuberculosis can lead to infertility.
“Smoking whilst pregnant can also be extremely harmful to the unborn child.”
Aziza Karimi, acting director of the department for women’s affairs in Herat, said that it was nonetheless important to remember just how much of a difference the women-only restaurants were making. They not only provided an opportunity for female-only socialising, but were also improving women’s economic independence.
“It’s women themselves that have invested in and established these businesses,” she said. “They’ve created jobs and provide a quiet environment for women to go and relax.”
This report was produced under IWPR’s Supporting Investigative Reporting in Local Media and Strengthening Civil Society across Afghanistan initiative, funded by the British Embassy Kabul.
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