GAZA CITY: The Hamas-run government in Gaza on Sunday said it had banned women from smoking water pipes in public, as fear of the police drove many cafe owners to extinguish the popular pastime.
"The police have decided to ban women from smoking water pipes in open, public places because it is against our customs, traditions and social norms," interior ministry spokesman Ihab Al-Ghussein told AFP.
The smoking of water pipes loaded with sweetened tobacco, also known as nargileh or shisha, is popular in cafes across the Arab world and was one of the few remaining leisure activities left in the isolated coastal strip.
The owners of several large cafes along Gaza’s beachfront said that in recent days they were ordered to stop serving the water pipes altogether, before police clarified that the ban only applied to women and minors.
"We received orders from the police to stop serving shisha without any further details," said Abu Ahmad, the owner of one such cafe who asked not to be identified, adding that he is not currently serving shisha to anyone.
"We are in favour of a shisha ban for children and young people, but women should be able to smoke inside a tent," he said, referring to the semi-private areas of the outdoor cafes usually reserved for families.
Nashat Al-Hamarna, the owner of a popular beach club north of Gaza, said he continued serving shisha to men but distributed notices with his menus saying, "Because of a government decision it is forbidden to serve shisha to women."
He says he still lost 30 percent of his normal weekend business.
Even Gaza’s most luxurious hotels, which largely cater to diplomats, foreign aid workers and journalists, have extinguished their coals.
A police officer speaking on condition of anonymity insisted the ruling only applied to women and children but said there may have been a "misunderstanding" by some over-zealous policemen.
Gazans flock to the territory’s beaches during the summer break, packing into dozens of outdoor restaurants and cafes that serve non-alcoholic drinks.
Most of Gaza’s cinemas and bars were torched after the outbreak of the 2000 Palestinian uprising, or intifada, and alcohol is strictly banned.
Few women in Gaza’s conservative society smoked water pipes in public even before the ban, though some would indulge at hotel restaurants or in private.
The Islamist Hamas movement has taken only limited steps to impose Islamic law on Gaza since it seized power in June 2007 but has tried to curb the mingling of the sexes in public places.
Hamas recently banned men from working in women’s hair salons and last year forbade women from riding on motorcycles. The police also regularly interrogate young couples and detain those who are not married.
The shisha ban drew criticism from many Gazans who felt it infringed on personal freedom and could harm some of the few businesses still functioning in Gaza, which has been under an Israeli blockade for more than four years.
"The decision is not good because everything becomes more desirable when it is forbidden," said Ayman Salih, a 25-year-old accountant.
"They impose their decisions without preparing the people or compensating the owners of cafes and restaurants… We want respect."