An Iraqi cafe: Coffee shops are a mainly male domain. (photo: مقهى سلام في بغداد)
Some locals would be surprised to see the older woman going to the Al Habayeb coffee shop in the centre of Kut city every day. But the woman - Um Sahar al-Rubaie, in her 50s – isn’t here to drink coffee. She is accompanying her two daughters, Zina and Sahr, who work here as waitresses.
What the women do in the cafes is not different from what female employees working in the tourist industry or in offices do.
Zina and her sister are both in their 20s and they work here because of a lack of other opportunities in Kut. They are paid around IQD50,000 a week (around US$40) and they use the money to help pay their family’s rent and cover their own expenses. Their mother comes with them to work to make sure the girls are safe and treated well; she acts as a kind of chaperone in the conservative province where any working woman, no matter what job she does, is seen as a rule breaker.
But now the sisters’ jobs – and the jobs of many other women like them – are in danger. On April 25, the provincial council in Wasit decided that women should not be allowed to work in cafes at night because of “long standing and deep cultural traditions” that opposed the idea. The head of the council, Mazen al-Zamile, defended the decision, saying that Wasit was a conservative place and that new practices, such as employing females, cannot be tolerated by locals.
Critics of the decision say that the council is simply trying to appease populist opinion, in time for potentially upcoming provincial elections.
But for Zina al-Rubaie and her sister, the decree is difficult. “I have three children and I provide for my mother too,” Zina al-Rubaie told NIQASH. “There is no other way to make a living here.”
Al-Rubaie says she is well aware that people gossip about her and they wonder why any woman would want to do work that puts her in what some consider a scandalous position. “I know people don’t understand why I accepted this job,” she says. “But what can I do? There are no other options.”
Cities like Kut have seen an increase in the kinds of establishments the al-Rubaie sisters work at. They usually offer juice, tea, some light meals and shisha pipes. Often younger women are employed here in order to attract customers – even though for many females, this is seen as improper employment.
“It is not fair that women are not allowed to work,” says Shahid al-Qaisi, 18, another waitress at the same café the al-Rubaie sisters work at. “And there is a lot of injustice for the women that do work here. We are seen as women of bad morals. But this is wrong – and it is just a chauvinistic point of view.”
“What the women do in the cafes is not different from what female employees working in the tourist industry or in offices do,” says Sijad al-Budairi, who owns the Hail and Lail coffee shop, another establishment that opens in the evenings in Kut. “And the local government is dealing with the women that work in evening cafes in an inappropriate way. Before making decisions like this, the government should be willing to step in and provide the female staff with better job opportunities.”
“The Iraqi Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion and the right to work and to decent housing,” argues Hassan al-Musawi, a human rights lawyer based in Kut. “As long as there are no legal complaints against these women the council has no right to prevent them from working.”
“Women here face huge problems because they simply don’t get the same employment opportunities,” al-Musawi continued. “Even if they get a job in a government department they are often harassed, just for working.”
The al-Rubaie sisters are still waiting for a final decision from the local authorities. In the meantime though, they and their mother will continue to go nightly to the café and do their jobs.