The first women’s café in Iraq

On the upper floor of the Halabja Women Center WADI has opened a café in 2007. It is the first of its kind in Iraqi Kurdistan – and probably in all of Iraq. The café is not just a nice place to have a glas of tea, but a place of freedom for most women who are destined to remain within the family sphere in their daily lifes.

By Oliver M. Piecha

Some construction work was needed turning the unused terrasse of the Halabja women center into a café. A shining samovar stands at the bright window front next to the sink for the tea glasses. This afternoon the room is almost empty because no classes are taking place, the other women have left at noon. We have an appointment with Hero, the director of the center and Juan, who is running the café.

Such a café would be needed in every neighborhood in Halabja, says Juan, “the women here need places where they can spend some time outside the house and away from the family”. There are no public spaces for women in Halabja, even the market is dominated by men. “The women are restricted to the house”, adds Hero. That there are female teachers now or women like herself who are working outside the house was only slowly accepted in society.

The situation in Halabja may be even more difficult that in other regions. After destruction of the city and displacement of its people in the 1980s Islamists ruled for over a decade. But things are changing in Halabja, even if slowly, step by step, the two women affirm. It was the largly accepted work of the women center which only made it possible to open such a public café in Halabja. Tea houses and cafés are part and parcel of the Middle Eastern men’s world. Yet, women have no access to these important places of communication.

„All innovations are met at first with suspicion.” says Juan, „It was the same with the café. My family accepted that I work here when it was clear that it is a women-only space, but many times I heard: A café for women? That’s not good.“

It was the same with the homework assistance for girls which is offered in the afternoons in the center. „How should the girls learn when they share a room with many small sibilings at home – especially before exams? At first the mothers were appalled, then we explained the idea again and again, also on broadcast it was recommended until after zwo or three months they send their daughters.“

Both agree, sometimes it needs patience to encourage the people repeatedly and don’t be discouraged themselves. And slowly things are changing. “But for our generation it will remain difficult,” says Hero. “For the young it will be easier.” Juan nods while serving more tea. „For us women it is not assumed that we get a professional training or even finish school.” What does the café mean for her personally? She laughs. “It means progress – also for my personal life!“