Restaurants only for women, men keep out! [Archives:2007/1036/Reportage]

March 26 2007
Most women-only restaurants serve sweets, but some serve snacks.
Most women-only restaurants serve sweets, but some serve snacks.
Fatima Al-Ajel
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Restaurants generally tend to serve both male and female customers; however, in traditional societies such as Yemen and other Arab countries where local customs are preserved and held in high esteem, some restaurants cater only for women.

Approximately 10 years ago in Yemen, many restaurants catered only for women, especially in areas near the university and girls' schools, when some families rejected the idea of their daughters frequenting male restaurants to avoid mixing between men and women. Thus, women's restaurants became a phenomenon.

Operating women-only restaurants was an innovative idea for many businessmen, many of whom feared that such an ambitious project might fail. In the early days of the initiative, some restaurateurs initially opened sections for families and women only.

Over time, the number of female customers increased, thus necessitating restaurants enlarging their women-only sections. Increased demand by women, especially in a number of locations across Sana'a spurred some owners to open women-only restaurants.

One owner of a woman-only restaurant in front of the old university in Sana'a explained the reasons for opening his restaurant 12 years ago, from which he earns a respectable profit. “Nowadays, women go out either to study or work and as a result, they spend a great deal of time from home, so they actually need places like this to rest and eat their meals in a comfortable environment, especially in a society like ours,” he noted.

Location plays an important role in encouraging businessmen to open such restaurants. “I decided to open my restaurant because I have a building in front of the university, a prime location for such a project. Otherwise, I don't think I ever would have considered such an endeavour so far from its natural market,” another restaurateur commented.

Mohammed Al-Hazmi, an accountant for the past eight years at a women-only restaurant in Sana'a, clarified the importance of the restaurant's location in attracting university students, who spend their free time at the restaurant. He serves many customers, especially in the morning and afternoon.

“We did have a separate section for men in the women's restaurant, but some male customers were bothered by the women who entered the restaurant, so we closed the male section. We prefer women customers because they're quiet and never cause problems, unlike in male or public restaurants,” Al-Hazmi added.

With the advent of specialized women's restaurants where men are forbidden entry, unfortunately, the waiters are still male, a fact that bothers many female customers, who either are dissuaded from eating at such restaurants or forced to remain covered in a restaurant meant only for them.

However, women-only restaurants find difficulty employing women who will accept working in a restaurant; thus, many employ young boys under age 16. As one restaurateur explained, “I looked for female wait staff and I was ready to pay them more than men. However, I couldn't find anyone due to Yemeni culture wherein most families won't allow their daughters to work in a restaurant, even if it's specialized for women only.”

Another reason many Yemenis don't accept female employees in such a workplace is that the environment is considered unsuitable for women, given that most restaurant employees are men who work closely together and chew qat during their time off. According to one restaurant owner, “I couldn't ask a woman to work in a male environment because she wouldn't feel comfortable with the male staff and the male staff would feel the same.”

Many female customers appreciate such restaurants because they provide a safe and suitable atmosphere for young women to eat and review their lectures. Some students' homes are far away, while others may have several hours between lectures, so women-only restaurants are ideal for a rest or prayer break until their next lecture or as a rendezvous to meet friends, rather than waiting on the street.

Salwa Mohammed, a first-level student at Sana'a University's Faculty of Medicine, is one customer who arranges to meet friends in such places. “I can't wait for my friends on the street or at college, so these restaurants are good locations for us to wait for each other, especially because they're safe. We're never bothered by stupid men,” she added.

Noura Al-Athuari, a Faculty of Art student and a regular customer of a restaurant near the faculty, said she sometimes spends hours at the restaurant studying and reviewing lessons with her friends, especially during exams.

In the past few years, women-only restaurants have begun attracting customers who aren't university students, such as women working two shifts or housewives who consider such places good party venues, as well as many other women for whom these restaurants are simply places to relax and socialize away from the intrusion of the male gaze.

Consequently, many more businessmen are considering opening women-only restaurants to cater for this burgeoning market.