Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, Women's Health

MIDEAST: Hamas Guards Women’s Health – for the Wrong Reasons

Pam Bailey

GAZA CITY, Jan 25 2011 (IPS) - When the Hamas government of Gaza imposed restrictions on shisha (water pipe) smoking several months ago, it wasn’t for health reasons – even though the habit is pervasive in the densely populated strip of land. Rather, the ban targeted only women – and it is being widely ignored despite the firm grip of the conservative Islamic government.

Dr. Mahmoud Hashem El-Khuzondar, an ear, nose and throat specialist in Gaza City, describes just how common the tobacco-infused water pipe is: “About 70 percent of young adults smoke cigarettes, some of them smoke shisha and most mix between them and other types. So many factors (contribute to) this high rate of smoking – the low income of people, high unemployment, the long Israeli siege…with all this bad news, people smoke to improve their mood and forget what’s happening.”

The harm caused by one “round” of shisha (also called nargila, hubbly bubbly or hookah) is the equivalent of an entire pack of cigarettes.

No statistics are kept of the incidence of smoking-related diseases in Gaza, said a spokesman Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, but Dr. El-Khuzondar say he commonly sees lung tumours that are clearly smoking-related.

However, this epidemic among a society traumatized by years of conflict is not the focus of the ban. Rather, it is the fact that although shisha is a mostly male activity in this conservative Islamic society, it’s a favourite pasttime as well among many women, particularly those from more liberal, upper-income families. In fact, whereas cigarettes are more common among men, shisha is preferred by women.

In a statement issued when the ban was first announced, Ehab Gussain, Hamas Interior Ministry spokesman, said “it is inappropriate for a woman to sit cross-legged and smoke in public. It harms the image of our people.”

Mohammed El-Khuzondar, owner of Al Badia, a popular shisha bar and coffee house in Gaza City, recalls how he was informed of the ban: “A police representative came in and told us that women were banned from smoking shisha in public, and that there would be harsh, punitive procedures if any women were seen smoking. At first, I was surprised by this law, simply because (shisha smoking) is allowed for women in almost all of the Arab countries.”

The penalty for violating the new edict, he was told, was 10,000 shekels – about 2,800 dollars – a lot of money in Gaza, where 80 percent of the people are dependent on food aid. When the edict was first issued in July of 2010, it was applied only to beachside cafes and restaurants, because they are considered more “public.” Two establishments were forcibly closed for a short period. By September, the ban was extended throughout the Gaza Strip.

Moen Abu Al-Kheer, founder of the Palestinian Committee for Restaurants and Tourist Services in Gaza, describes his association’s response when he was informed of the new prohibition: “Our association was opposed to this decision, especially since it was only against women. If men and women were equally banned from smoking shisha, we would possibly have abided by this decision, since it has to do with preserving health and environment.”

Ebaa Rezeq, a third-year university student in English and French, remembers when she first heard the news of the ban: “I was actually on Facebook and everyone was talking about it, and I was like, no, you can’t be serious.”

Hamas has a spotty record when it comes to enforcing its morality bans. A ban on men working in ladies hair salons was never enforced, and a demand that female lawyers cover their hair before they enter courtrooms was quietly rescinded. But Hamas has successfully banned women from riding motorbikes. Last year, the group swooped down on moonshiners, banned foreigners from bringing alcohol into Gaza, and ordered shopkeepers to take down scantily clad mannequins.

Rezeq is not about to stop smoking shisha, however. Like many women in Gaza who smoke shisha, she isn’t fazed by the moral judgments of Hamas – or by the warnings of physicians. “Me and my friends only smoke it socially, not every day, so I don’t think I’m at risk,” she says. “And it’s fun.”

Rezeq is like any young person who lives for the moment and doesn’t take health threats that could be 10 years down the road seriously. However, in Gaza, there is an added dimension. When a random sampling of young adults was asked why they smoke shisha despite the health warnings, they invariably said they it was more likely they would die in one of the frequent invasions by the Israeli army. When death is considered that “mundane”, it just doesn’t seem to be worth it to give up a habit they find relaxing.

Despite the ban, girls are finding a way to continue smoking shisha. Al-Kheer explained that the edict was a verbal pronouncement, not an official law. That left women and restaurant managers some room for their own “interpretation”.

“Yesterday, I was hanging out with some friends and I ordered shisha and the waiter told me that I can’t, that I have specific orders to ban girls from smoking,” recounted Rezeq, who rebels in other ways as well, such as refusing to wear the hijab (head covering). “But then the owner of the place allowed me to smoke. After a while, though, a couple of men from Hamas arrived and he became concerned. He said sorry madam, but just give (the shisha) to us for right now. We don’t want to have trouble with the government. I understood. I appreciated that he was willing to accommodate me at all.”

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