Strobes of garish neon lights greet the visitor at the entrance of the Women’s Cafe in south Beirut, an ingeniously titled female-only establishment off Hadi Nasrallah Street that its customers say offers them an opportunity to be themselves, outside home. Finding the place merits a story of its own. For starters, there are no signs to mark the cafe, so prospective customers must instead ask the myriad of eateries and shops along the main road for directions. Following these will inevitably give way to pangs of doubt, as they lead one down a narrow and unlit alleyway toward a store selling sunglasses.
When asked if there was a cafe catering to women nearby, the sunglasses merchant pointed up to the second floor where the dazzle of tawdry lights could be seen from the windows. Stairs lined with imitation rhinestones guide the newcomer to a sliding door; the gateway to a crimson ladies’ parlor, which, on a busy day, is swimming with black chadors and resonant with the chatter of female voices.
Owner Amal Alloush opened the cafe nearly three years ago. The idea occurred to her while she was married to her then-husband, who expected to follow his strict dictates and forbade her from smoking nargileh, her beloved pastime, in front of strangers and house guests.
“My husband said doing such a thing went against our religion,” the veiled woman told The Daily Star, nestled in pink cushions and gracefully smoking a hookah pipe. “That’s when the idea to open the cafe came to my mind.”
“He used to go out and have fun with his friends at night in men-only cafes, leaving me home alone, so I thought ‘Why can’t we do the same?’” she said. “We needed a place where we could be ourselves outside of our homes.”
Most customers are devout Muslims who sport the veil and come to the cafe up to three times a week for the very same reason Alloush decided to open it. Some women arrive in long black chadors and take off their outer layer before ordering, but prefer to keep their veils on.
Among the cafe’s regulars is a woman who has been coming to work there every day for two years. Fed up with being cooped up indoors and staring at a laptop screen all day as part of her data entry job, which involves working from home, she went out looking for a place to set up shop, knowing that regular outdoor cafes were not permissible.
Alloush has also noticed an increasing number of uncovered young women who stop by nowadays, mostly students from the nearby Lebanese University.
“Sometimes they put on music and start dancing,” she said. “They feel this is a safe space where they can do that and not be harassed.”
She said business was good, as the cafe has many regular customers, a sign of the void it is filling.
When Alloush looked for a place to open the business, she knew she wanted one away from the gaze of the public, making ground floor spaces out of the question. The space she eventually found above the sunglasses shop was originally a pizzeria.
“I thought it would be perfect, because it’s on the second floor and because it’s spacious, which worked for me because I also rent it out for birthday parties and other social events,” she explained.
The decor may be a touch too gaudy for some tastes, with pink-striped velour curtains and matching sofa cushions. The woman-centric theme Alloush was after was obvious.
The menu, however, is more typical, featuring saj with traditional fillers such as cheese and zaatar, as well as a variety of crepes, ice creams, coffees, teas and the cafe’s celebrated fresh juices.
Customers also adore its cheekily named specialty drinks, such as the “Virgin Lady,” a strawberry milkshake, the “Snow White,” made with milk, bananas and vanilla ice cream, and the “Special Lady” which contains spearmint with milk and ice cream.
“A lot of people like the Virgin Lady actually,” laughed Alloush, “They try it first because they are curious about the name, and then they end up liking the flavors and ordering it again.”
For Jana, 23, a university student enrolled in business administration, the cafe is a second home.
“I like the colors,” she said. “It’s informal, it’s comfortable.
“It feels like home.”
Jana said she came to the cafe at least three times a week to enjoy her favorite item on the menu, “apple shisha” she said, with a giggle. Sometimes she and her friends come twice in one day, in the afternoon and later in the evening to study and chat about the vagaries of college life and life in general.
“We talk about what we want to do once we graduate,” said Jana, who is engaged to be married. “I want to open my own business, a clothing shop or something like that.”
“I’ve met so many other people and made new friends here,” she said. “I would like it if there were more cafes like this.”