JEDDAH – Women’s coffee shops are no longer just meeting places for friends or refuges for a moment’s escape from the daily routine. Instead, according to some, they have become the haunts of university students and schoolgirls playing truant to indulge themselves in smoking shisha pipes and cigarettes, with women using the locations as impromptu job agencies, and matchmakers seeking willing bribes. Behind the walls of women’s coffee shops, some say, all sorts of things go on.
Salwan Abdullah, a 24-year-old university student, recalls the first time she was invited by a student friend to go to an all-female coffee shop. “I had no idea of what went on in these places, and when we entered the room was crowded with university students and girls from secondary and intermediate school. The air was full of smoke from shisha pipes and cigarettes. There were married and single girls, and women matchmakers going round asking girls if they were looking for husbands and if so what sort of features they were looking for.”
Girls in uniform
“I saw the same thing in another café during school exam time,” Salwan continued. “I saw girls in school uniform, no more than 14 years old, going into the bathrooms to change into jeans and T-shirts and putting on make-up they’d hidden in their school bags along with their cigarettes.”
“Girls have become more and more daring in coffee shops,” said university student Khuloud. “I once saw two girls among a group smoking shisha and laughing out loud as if it were the most normal thing in the world, and I could tell from their eyes that they were proud of it.”
“What is behind all this?” Khuloud wonders. “Is it leniency on the part of their families? Is it the weakness of their religious restraints? Or is it that they fall into bad company. It could be a combination of all these things, but society needs to do something about it.”
Noura Asiri, a King Abdulaziz University student, recalls her experience at a north Jeddah coffee shop. “I saw a group of girls who had come in a car driven by a foreigner, and when I asked about them I discovered that they had been sent out with the driver on an errand, which shows that their family doesn’t know what they really get up to.”
Sara, a science student at King Abdulaziz University, described some of the behavior she saw in coffee shops as “incredible.”
“It goes completely against our ethics,” she said. “In one of the larger coffee shops I saw girls dressed very immodestly, acting as if they were young male teenagers, drinking coffee and tea, and there was a special place for listening to music which had been turned into some sort of place for dancing and showing off their bodies. Families need to keep an eye on this and prevent this sort of behavior in our conservative society.”
Female Hai’a staff
Dr. Abdul Razaq Al-Zahrani, a sociology professor at the Imam University is clear on the subject. “This sort of unethical, undisciplined and irrational behavior is wrong, and is one of the ills of our times that have been imported into the country causing our girls to copy and try out the immorality they see on satellite television channels,” he says. “It encourages the sons and daughters of families to sneak away from them in their free time. There should be somebody watching over these places and checking what goes on. The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice should have female staff to carry out such a task.”
Amal Al-Ju’eid is a sociology specialist and says that all young people’s behavior has its source in their families and the disintegration of the family. “Social vigilance is clearly lacking here. If the girl engages in uncontrolled behavior of her own initiative this is a result of a lack of vigilance or the result of her trying to escape from extreme pressures at home, and so she might feel she gains something by fulfilling certain special desires,” Al-Ju’eid said.
“The rapid development we’ve seen in society has led the family’s attention away from issues of domestic upbringing, while the privacy offered by some women’s restaurants and coffee shops has encouraged girls who have a lack of religious restraint.”
“The Ministry of Education could do something about this by restricting the times that female students go out during exam periods with the knowledge of their guardians,” Al-Ju’eid said. “But we can’t blame schools for everything that goes on. Home life needs to be fully addressed. Without a proper upbringing all the rules and laws in the world are of no use.”
Change in social fabric
Dr. Abla Hassanein, a sociology professor at King Abdulaziz University, sees the issue as part of a wider phenomenon. “The economic and social developments seen in the Kingdom have inevitably brought both negative and positive changes to the social structure,” she says. “Society is made up of a group of families with conflicts between the old and the new. This is an indicator of change in society and in its values which affect the social fabric. I’ve seen it in coffee shops, especially those in Jeddah, and I think my colleagues and other sociology and psychology specialists need to find an effective solution to flights from behavioral norms that go against our values in female students from intermediate school up to those in higher education. It’s a dangerous cultural conflict where girls in their early teens learn from others in their search for themselves and their own identity and choose their path based on what most appeals to their subconscious desires and inclinations.”
“The people who run the coffee shops are only interested in profit, regardless of what goes on in their establishments and however much it goes against our principles and values,” Hassanein continued. “I sometimes wonder what the situation is going to be like in these coffee shops in one or two years’ time if things go on as they are.”
“I also question the state of the relationship between mother and daughter,” she said. “The daughter rebels against her mother’s instinctive role as a guider and upbringer.”
“Two weeks ago,” Hassanein continued, “I was with a friend when she said we should go to a coffee shop her daughter often goes to in north Jeddah, and that I should see what goes on in there. I was taken aback by what I saw. It was completely unexpected, even though I’ve lived abroad for a good part of my life.”
“One solution,” Hassanein said, “might be to offer girls more female clubs with rules conforming to Shariah law and standardized prices.”
Umeima Zahid, head of Educational Media at the Girls’ Education Administration said there was an awareness program by the administration carried out throughout the year in schools which included Islamic awareness, and instruction and guidance. Schools also have their own private initiatives.
“We hold discussion sessions with mothers and teachers in how to guide their daughters and students correctly and get the message across effectively,” Zahid said. “The behavior of girls in coffee shops is only one part of many social practices that everyone is keen to address.” – Roaa/SG