As women, Gaza residents and now entrepreneurs, Riham Hamuda and Alaa Abu Zabit saw a niche market in the stifling Palestinian strip that men had never thought of: a space without a male presence. This is how Sabaia VIP was born, the only cafeteria run by women and for women in a territory where traditional gender roles weigh heavily, oases are scarce (5,500 people per square kilometer, 60 times more than Spain, one of the highest population densities of the planet), the Islamist movement Hamas has ruled since 2007, and Israel blocks access by land, sea and air.
In Sabaia VIP, which means “girls” or “girls” in Arabic, there is only room for owners, waitresses, cooks and clients. A sign warns him next to the door: “Entrance to men is prohibited.” “Here the girls feel comfortable. I think it was the feminine sensitivity, which made us know that women need a private space”, explains Hamuda inside the premises, who co-hosts it with Abu Zabit, both in their thirties. “There was a lack of a place where the girls had their privacy and felt free and safe. In which they were more comfortable and relieved of the pressure of living here ”, he adds.
They have seven cooks and waitresses employed. “Part of the idea is that we are women and we want to support women,” Abu Zabit stresses. The head chef, Amena al Hayek, worked for free at a restaurant hotel. When she applied for a paid position, the managers rejected her candidacy, stating that they “wanted a male chef, not a female chef,” she told Reuters. “This is a male society that does not allow women to lead a kitchen team in Gaza. We have shown the world that we can open a restaurant and succeed without the supervision of a man,” she added. In Gaza, the percentage of participation in the labor force of women is 19.5%, compared to 67.9% among men, according to data for the second quarter of the year from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Female unemployment reaches 65.1%.
The veil is not compulsory in Gaza, but the number of women who do not wear it is negligible. Islam, the religion of 99% of the inhabitants of the strip, allows it to be withdrawn in the absence of men outside the family circle with whom marriage is prohibited. “As is the case here, many take it off,” says Hamuda.
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Sabaia VIP is not, however, a venue within everyone’s reach. “Our clients are more of an upper class. There are also university students who come from wealthy families. and some foreigners [de organismos internacionales, ONG, etc.] who live here”, admits Abu Zabit, who underlines the absence of a clear ideological and age profile, despite the fact that the place is called “girls”. “Most are between 20 and 50 years old. Some are more conservative and others are more liberal”, he affirms.
socioeconomic status it is noted on the letter. A shis tawuk (chicken skewers) costs 18 shekels (about five euros); a beef burger, 17, and a pistachio ice cream, 12. An effort for many pockets of the strip, where unemployment reaches 44%, despite being lower prices than other parts of Palestine, such as eastern Palestine. Jerusalem or the West Bank city of Ramallah, and very far from those paid in the Israeli Tel Aviv, the third most expensive city in the world, according to the World Cost of Living Index, published by The Economist Intelligence Unit.
Located on the second floor of a well-known commercial artery in Gaza City, the capital of the strip, Sabaia VIP offers a mix of Western and Middle Eastern dishes, with plenty of fast food and desserts. The bright colors of the milkshakes, the amount of chocolate in the waffles and the decoration – with a swing and artificial vine leaves – reinforce the adolescent aesthetic. “Many girls celebrate birthdays or engagements here. They know that if they did it in a restaurant, there would be men,” says Hamuda. The place also houses a literary club.
The cafeteria was inaugurated at the end of last August. The owners had launched the idea, inspired by Abu Zabit’s hometown, the more liberal Ramallah, five months earlier. Hamuda, with three years of experience as an administrator before launching into the private initiative, assures that her friends encouraged them to launch and that the conversations with them made them understand that there was a demand gap to cover, but they did not decide until a market study confirmed the feasibility of the project in such a complicated context. Both are married and have invested family savings. Although it is the only project of its kind in Gaza, it is not unprecedented. There was a similar one, with billiards, also in the capital, and another, smaller one, in the conservative Jan Yunis, in the south of the strip. They did not survive. “Right now we are the only ones”, emphasizes Hamuda.
The business, they say, has started well, despite the challenge of starting in Gaza, where there is a lack of electricity and imports depend on the green light of the Israeli military authorities – who have kept Gaza under blockade for 15 years, part of them with the help from Egypt—or smuggling through the tunnels to Sinai. For example, to offer good air conditioning according to the expectations of the clientele and the intense heat of the area, they pay 4,000 shekels per month (1,100 euros) for the electricity provided by a shared private generator. “It is the main problem we have to be able to advance further. We want to put solar panels, but they are worth 6,000 dollars”, laments Abu Zabit.
― Have you had any problems with the male population or with the authorities?
– “No. In addition, we prohibit smoking cigarettes or hookah [una rareza en Gaza]. And those of Hamas like that women don’t smoke”, Hamuda interjects with a knowing smile.
Shortly after, he delicately suggests that the time has come for us to leave: “At this time the girls usually start to arrive and… well, you know what the concept of Sabaia VIP is”.
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