After years of being kept out, women are now able to smoke hookah in public cafes

Story by Alexandra Legend Siegel // Photo by Lily Bahramipour

AMMAN, Jordan – In a dimly lit hookah café in downtown Amman, a group of young people lounge on the long, wooden benches. San Alsudi, a woman in her early 20s, puts the tobacco – called argila here – to her lips, inhales and blows out a stream of smoke. She says something in Arabic that makes the people around her laugh before she passes the hose.

Basema Muhammed al Zagatet and Enas Al Badi smoke argila in Cafe Umsiat Amman. In recent years, women have begun to smoke hookah, or argila as it's called in Amman - openly in cafes. As recently as 10 years ago, that would have been forbidden.

Five years ago, a woman in a café like this would have been rare. Ten years ago, it would have been forbidden.  Jafra, the lively spot that Alsudi and her friends are in,  opened in 2006 as one of the first to welcome women.

“We treat women as we treat men,” said the owner, Ali Mashaykh (through a translator). “This is why [women] feel welcome.”

Alsudi and her friends say they feel comfortable in Jafra – which means “beautiful woman” in Arabic – because they can participate in the age-old practice of sharing these hot coals as they sit around a circle, without fear of disappointing their elders.

“Look around,” Alsudi said, leaning forward and grinning like a child with a secret. “Do you see any older generation? No. That means there’s nobody here to criticize us.”

The notion of women being able to go to cafes like these is a relatively modern idea. Older generations see it as taboo or abnormal because it is against tradition. But in a country with 70 percent of its population under the age of 30, the older traditions seem to hold increasingly less weight.

“For most of us here, our family doesn’t know we are here,” Alsudi said. “If they did, we would be in trouble.”

Hookah is a traditional social practice in the Arab world in which people gather around a large smoking instrument composed of several parts. There is a bowl where the aged, flavored tobacco is placed on a flat base for the hot coals, a shaft where the smoke goes through, a long hose to breathe in the smoke and a glass base with water in the bottom to help heat the tobacco.

Cafés all over the Middle East offer different flavors of hookah as western cafes might offer different kinds of pastries. The hookah pipe and coals serve as a centerpiece for people to sit around and tell stories, debate and gossip. Jordanians also smoke hookah at home with family and friends.

Hussein Saliem, manager of another argila café downtown called Umsiat Amman, said that Jordan has become a progressively more open culture in the past 10 years.

“This generation is becoming more open-mind,” he said, “Like with anything, step by step and little by little, things change.”

The opening of cafes such as Jafra five years ago and Umsiat Amman in 2009 has brought life back to downtown Amman, called Il-Balad, one of the oldest parts of the city. For years, downtown has been empty due to the construction of malls in the surrounding area, which stole away patrons. Both Mashaykh and Saliem agreed that the welcoming atmosphere for women helped to attract patrons to the area once again.

“Downtown used to be the life of this city but then people stopped coming,” Mashakyh said. “We thought, ‘If we could bring people back we could bring back the culture to where it started. This is a place where you can gather and talk.’”

Mashakyh said that people, especially women, used to stay at home and smoke, but now they are coming to cafes because it is a different experience. Makshakyh said women can now go out to many places in Jordan, with only a few exceptions.

“There is no single place in Jordan that doesn’t accept women. However, I would not like my wife to go somewhere that is full of all men,” he said. “We try to make it a family place, so a boyfriend and his girlfriend hugging or kissing would not be acceptable.”

In the Jordanian culture, it is seen as disrespectful for a man and woman who are not man and wife to openly display affection.

“Women being able to go to cafes is a very positive change. As long as you don’t do things that disrespect the religion and culture, it is a good thing,” said Enas Al Badi through a translator, a 30-year-old woman chatting and smoking with her friend Basema Muhammad al Zagatet, 30, in Umsiat Amman café.

Al Zagatet said that in the past, people were interpreting the teaching of Islam in a way that held women back.

“Now people are more aware and confident and understand the real teachings of Islam and how it should be practiced,” she said, also through a translator. “There has been a big change of women going out while respecting culture because there is no obvious reason not to be able to.”

Both Al Zagatet and Al Badi hope to see everywhere in Jordan become open to women socializing, especially for their future daughters and nieces.

“I believe we respected our fathers when they gave us freedom so I will do the same [for my daughters] because then they will respect me,” said Al Zagatet.

Together, both the growing acceptance of women in public social settings and the revitalization of downtown Amman serve as evidence to Jordan’s shift in mindset. The younger generations are not going against their parents, but rather rethinking what is both acceptable and normal in relation to their faith.

“As a culture, we Jordanian people want to keep our values but follow the real teachings of Islam,” said Al Zagatet. “We can give women more freedom while respecting the values of Islam. It’s about having a balance.”

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About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.
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17 Responses to After years of being kept out, women are now able to smoke hookah in public cafes

  1. Elesha (El) says:

    Great Story! The future belongs to the young, women…

    And, of course, I am not biased just because it was I who fittingly named the author ‘Legend’, meaning ‘storyteller’ in one of her Native American ancestral customs…

    Speaking of Native genes and/or culture, seems “the sitting around with a ‘kind of peace pipe” where one tells stories, trade information, plan strategies and learned new facts are rather parallel to what the young women in Jordan are finally being allowed to partake…However, unlike Jordan, Native women along the ‘Rio Grande, between Texas and New Mexico, snaking its way to the Mexican border’, were allowed to smoke the peace pipe…’peace was a misnomer since mostly plans for war and attacks were being hatched’…You know, come to think of it, the desert/area where some of ‘Legend’s’ ancestors roamed, looked a lot like, wait for it, Petra…think for a second, the city carved in the mountain and the Navajo dwellings in the Grand Canyon? Floating on water between territories (US and Mexico – Rio Grand River)? Oh, this is getting kind of eerie…coincidence, you think? The same, but different..

    Ah, the red sleeves of a buffalo upon the shoulders of a camel…El

  2. Chuck says:

    Great job my beautiful daughter! The world can’t help being a kinder, gentler place when women gain more freedom.

  3. Paula says:

    Meant to be a writer !! ❤ it !
    With young and talented women like Ally …
    helping by getting the word out … especially by sharing experiences…benefits all women all over the world.
    Great to see the change … and great article !
    "Don't you feel the day is coming
    and it won't be too soon
    when the people of the world
    can all live in one room
    when we shake off the ancient
    shake off the ancient chains of our tomb
    we will all be born again
    of the eternal womb"~Cat Stevens

  4. L.A. says:

    As a young, modern, educated Jordanian woman I really fail to see that women sitting in cafe smoking arghile is “liberating”, why would I sit there and inhale poisonous fumes and risk getting infectious diseases like tuberculosis and herpes! And how exactly are these ladies respecting their fathers when they spend time in these cafes behind their families’ backs? Aren t there better ways to spend ones time? Many of these cafe serve arghila indoors and to minors, therebye openly breaking law no 47 for 2008! No, this is not the image of modern Jordanian women that I would like to portray to the world!

  5. L.A says:

    can’f believe that liberation of jordanian women is actually equated with their ability to sneak behind their parent’s back to smoke argila! is this how women in the west are being assessed? surely not. please next time you want to discuss jordanian women and their accomplishments try to look in the right places…a coffee shop down town is definitly not the place to do so.

    a liberated jordanian woman who prides herself of doing everything in broad daylight.

  6. F.H. says:

    As a Jordanian woman, I don’t understand how being able to smoke hookah in public cafes can be called (gaining freedom). Freedom means responsibility, and smoking is definitely not a responsible action, especially when done indoors and violating Law No. 47 for the year 2008 which prohibits indoor smoking in public places. Freedom does not mean serving tobacco products to teenagers under 18 years. This is not a true and honest image of women in Jordan. The women you met do not represent the Jordanian society as a whole. Women in Jordan are fighting for their rights in more important issues. Next time you write about women in Jordan, please do your homework.

  7. Bahjat Tabbara says:

    There is nothing liberating about smoking (cigarettes or narjilah) & to call it ‘liberation’ is beyond reproach. The problem of women (I’m a male aged 30 just for reference) is the bias nature of the laws & legislations in Jordan; & even worse, implementation is also bias against women. Thus one should ‘rebel’ not by smoking (which is detrimental to the health) but by challenging these laws & the way they are implemented. For example, how many of those women know that ‘gender’ is not even mentioned in the constitution of Jordan? For example, the constitution grants rights and equality to all peoples regardless of race, ethnicity or religion; but not gender! Moreover, the way it is written implies males.

    It is not a real development; as it parallels the ignorance of Western societies of the 1950s when ‘women smoking in public’ became non-taboo. The difference is, in 2011 we know smoking is harmful, & this makes it even worse.

  8. Bahjat Tabbara says:

    I would rather women ‘liberate’ themselves through sport, but in a society like Jordan’s, sport is not actively encouraged by many, & even frowned upon. Sport is more productive, whereas smoking is a serious issue. It is very disappointing that NorthEasternUniversity Journalism (no disrespect intended) did not focus on the broader aspects. Why smoking? Would it be acceptable classify smoking as women’s liberation in any Western society? No.

    Moreover, Narjilah (or Hookah-like) is much more harmful. It would have been wise to ask why they do it if it is harmful. Moreover, I do not see how ‘imitating men’ (& I don’t see anything manly about smoking) is an example of liberation.

    Try WomenAgainstIndoorSmoking http://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_180035178690251&ap=1 and SmokeFreeJordan http://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_160429811965

    These are the real women who are liberating people from tobacco.

    BE FREE BE SMOKE FREE!

    That’s our slogan!

  9. Bahjat Tabbara says:

    Yes, they did write an article on the group.

    Good work, I didn’t notice it before.

  10. Zeina says:

    Although your reporting and writing skills are great, I am disappointed that this article attempts to associate tobaccco addiction with something positive. We in Jordan are trying to fight the ‘hookah’ epidemic not promote it..

  11. Bahjat Tabbara says:

    I may add that the photo is somewhat demeaning. A girl smoking is never positive, & associating it w/positive social change (as Zeina pointed out) is not right.

    If anything, women are leading the anti-smoking drive; as a anti-tobacco activist myself, I found that virtually every interview (KHCC, IQS etc) was w/women, & women were most committed. The World No Tobacco Day celebration was organised & executed mostly by ladies such as Zeina.

    As such, women are INDEED LEADING FOR POSITIVE SOCIAL CHANGE, & this is a far more positive development than the ‘women are now able to enjoy smoking’ epidemic.

  12. laurynpaiva says:

    In response to FH: The fact that you are asserting that Ally did not “do her homework” while reporting this piece is simply deplorable. Simply because these women do not subscribe to your notion of “free” does not mean that her account is an inaccurate representation of one segment of the population. As journalists, it is our number one priority to report facts from an unbiased perspective. It is not our job to uphold a singular image or view of a community, but rather to report the multifaceted and diverse communities that present themselves to us. It is a job I suspect you yourself would not be able to undergo, as putting aside personal biases and opinions is crucial to any journalistic endeavor. Ally, you did a wonderful job crafting a piece that was based in fact and you should be proud of your work.

    • aesavvides says:

      Well said, Lauryn. I appreciate your standing up for Ally. While you and I reported one side of the smoking issue in Jordan, surrounding public health code 47, Ally found a different, unique story and presented it beautifully. It was a well-reported, effective and important story, symbolic of the expansion of women’s rights in Jordan.

      • Bahjat Tabbara says:

        To equate ‘smoking openly’ to ‘women’s rights’ is a two-step-back, one step forward approach. To begin with, feminism seems to follow the male-tail; that is, ‘we want what men have’ regardless of whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ & so on. Yet because mainstream feminism has never had ethical moderators it moved from being anti-abortion to pro-abortion; in a Western context anyway. The ultimate issue is; if a patriarchal society is bias against women for ‘smoking openly’ then the right thing to do is to oppose smoking; not to demand the ‘right’ to smoke openly as well.

    • Bahjat Tabbara says:

      I disagree; as to both. I also find it deplorable that ‘equality’ can be equated to ‘smoking equally’ with males; for laws in Jordan (that enable honour killings to go unpunished for example) or other issues reveal that the gulf in rights is possibly widening. However, there are signs of progress, in the last parliamentary elections, a woman was elected w/o going through the quota system; making it only the second-time this has happened. Otherwise, women’s rights in Jordan are not merely expressed in adopting the same (dare I say) filthy habits of their menfolk.

  13. aesavvides says:

    Additionally, in response to F.H., no single group will ever represent an entire society. Sure, the women and activist group highlighted in Lauryn’s story is representative of one segment of the Jordanian population, but these women highlighted in Ally’s story represent another. To imply that we, as Northeastern journalism students, need to alter our focus to better suit your personal views is to imply that we not do our job. We report on reality, with no judgment of what is a “better” representation of Jordan, in this case. Perhaps it is you that needs to do your homework and realize that these women, who feel liberated, exist within your society. Their story deserves to be told just as much as yours in the fight for the implementation of public health code 47.

    • Bahjat Tabbara says:

      The issue we find deplorable is to equate ‘smoking’ and ‘equality’ in one package. The reality is, Jordan (as a society) still regards smoking the way Western societies did three or four decades ago; today Western society rejects tobacco/smoking. The fact that smoking ‘hookah’ is more socially acceptable in Jordan is not a sign of progress in terms of women’s rights; but is rather a sign of (as I said before) social tolerance of a serious social ill. Moreover, hookah (or Ageelah as it’s called locally) is relatively new; that is from the early 2000s onwards.

      Moreover, the teachings of Islam forbid tobacco (cigarette) or hookah consumption; as per fatwas issued. The article; in my view also does not inform the reader that this is a very dangerous issue. I suppose it would be akin to suggesting that (say) women drinking at bars and pubs in Western nations (which was considered odd until a few decades ago) is a sign of progress. I don’t see how it is; and in Jordan’s case, women’s rights (and legal rights) remain elusive.

      Exhibit A: Gender or Sex are NOT subjects of equality in Jordan’s constitution (religion, ethnicity & race are) nor are their social calls for gender or sex to be included as free from discrimination.

      Exhibit B: Following from Exhibit A; honour killings, while relatively rare, remain pardonable by certain legal loopholes. These laws (based on the French Code Civil) have long fallen into disuse in France; however, they remain in Jordan and represent an obstruction to women’s rights.

      Exhibit C: The cafe in question is appealing to a certain demographic for profit-purposes; naturally enough (others aim for us non-smokers) however, however, the idea that women are ‘able to enjoy smoking hookah in public cafes’ is misleading because it remains taboo in all but relatively few cafes.

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