Located on an upper storey and overlooking the Euphrates river, the Mazaj Coffee Shop in Nasiriyah, is an elegant and welcoming space. But it’s also more than that. This particular café is the first in recent times in Nasiriyah, the capital of the southern Iraqi province of Dhi Qar, to allow women as customers.
In Iraq, coffee shops tend to be the preserve of male customers only. In less conservative cities, and especially in northern Iraq, in Iraqi Kurdistan, one finds so-called family cafes, where women can come in groups or with family members. But this has been rare in Dhi Qar.
In the past women only ever went to the cinema with their families, says one of the cafe owners, Sabreen Alwan al-Husseiny, 25, and also an employee at the local department of health.
The extremists don’t want see women in any kind of public space at all.
“I don’t believe that cafes should only be for men,” al-Husseiny told NIQASH; she and her business partner, Ahmad al-Khatib, run the café together. “I don’t think they should be forbidden to women. Which is what made me think of starting this service, responding to social and cultural needs and at the same time, able to generate an income. Those were my motivations in starting this café,” she explained.
In starting the café, al-Husseiny says that some members of her family were hesitant – her mother in particular – while other family members were supportive, including her father.
“I can understand their reservations given the fact that this kind of thing has not existed here previously,” she says.
The café has come in for criticism on social media sites. But as one of the café’s loyal customers puts it: "These are extremists who don’t want see women in any kind of public space at all. They don’t want them to have equal rights.”
Most of the women who come to the café drink tea and smoke water pipes, al-Husseiny says, while the men tend to prefer coffee and cigarettes.
The clientele is wide varied. Today’s guests include Haider al-Aboudi, who is here with his wife and children. He says he has absolutely no problem with his wife visiting a café and he likes to see her enjoying herself. He believes that Nasiriyah really lacks facilities where families can go for entertainment.
“My wife told me about the place and I checked the page on Facebook before we came,” Ali al-Yassiri, another guest, says. “We are really used to coming here now and it gives us a feeling of freedom and confidence.”
“This café is a positive step toward strengthening the confidence of local women,” says Aliyah Abdul-Kathem, a local activist from the Tamkeen Centre for Participation and Equality. “Civil society organisations should support these small initiatives that seek to bring life to Iraq.”
Al-Husseiny wants to make the café a meeting place for all kinds of activities. She wants to screen international films suitable for a family audience, host civil society organisations, workshops and seminars. Al-Husseiny has also had experience with local theatre and would like to use the venue to put on some shows as well. The café also has a selection of books that visitors can browse while there and it already hosts a regular book club.
The café has also been used for more traditional occasions, such as weddings, engagements and birthday parties.
“If somehow this café could become a larger institution, more than just a coffee shop, it would be supporting a better life in one of the most ancient Iraqi cities,” says Abdul-Razak Ali, a local sociologist. “It could become a real cultural forum.”