Women in Cairo began to enter ahwas in Cairo long ago. Smoking sheesha, sipping Turkish coffee, and playing backgammon, this creeping social change has encountered surprisingly little resistance. Men have simply moved over, and the owners have not refused to pocket the additional profit.
Unsurprisingly, women come for the exact same reasons as men.
I come here to hang out with my friends and to smoke sheesha. It s nice to be out of the house and away from our families for a little while, said Fatima at El Boursa Café. I mean, why else do people come to ahwas? she added, laughing.
Others come for more prurient reasons. “Many women come here with men, to talk to them and meet them away from their families. Maybe they are thinking about getting married, but most of them aren’t, Mohammed, a waiter at Romansa Café in Downtown, claims.
“Usually the man pays for the woman, which they like of course, but sometimes it is the other way around.
Nobody quite agrees on when women started to enter ahwas. Mohammed claims that it began around 10 years ago and it was “mostly young women, both students and employees.
Ahmed, who frequents a small neighborhood ahwa, says that only in the last five years have women started coming. Taher at the relatively lavish El Boursa Café said that women have been coming for so long, “I can’t remember when it started really, maybe 15 years ago? Nowadays though, the women in ahwas range from the wealthy American University in Cairo students to elderly ladies wearing the hijab. While women in ahwas tend to be younger, they cut across all class and generational lines.
While nobody could say with precision when the female invasion first began, all agreed that only recently have women begun to pierce the male inner sanctum of the neighborhood ahwa. These ahwas are small, crowded, sidewalk cafes. Inexpensive places, they usually have sheesha with mu’assil, flavorless tobacco, and serve as neighborhood gathering places for everyone from doormen to businessmen. And until recently, custom dictated that women should not frequent them.
The first female incursions focused on the larger more prominent ahwas, such as El Boursa, and skipped over this male preserve. Now, while the neighborhood ahwas remain overwhelmingly male -only in El Boursa were there actually women present at the time of the reporter’s visits – women can sometimes be seen assuming their position by the sheesha. We have so many women coming now that we offer apple-flavored sheesha for them. Ahmed said. “Women prefer that to the mu’assil. While one might think that men would resist feminine encroachment into their prized domain, most simply seemed not to care very much one way or the other.
“It’s progress, said Taher. “Before, we had to use landlines to make our calls. Now we have mobiles. It’s the same idea.
Ahmed, who was somewhat elderly, agreed but was quick to draw the line at his personal life. “I don’t like it for my wife to go out. She stays at home.