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New Trend In Ramallah: 'Girls Only' Cyber Cafés

New Trend In Ramallah: 'Girls Only' Cyber Cafés

By Yasser Abu Moailek

*******

Reem Abdullah was raised in a conservative family in a village near the city of Ramallah. She is a university student and needs some Internet time to do research for her studies. But Reem had a dilemma; family restrictions made it almost impossible for her to frequent cyber cafés open to both genders.

Reem's case is not uncommon in the West Bank, where many female students need Internet access in order to support their university studies.

According to a 2004 statistical study by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), almost 15 percent of females in the West Bank and 16 percent in the Gaza Strip use the Internet, while the ratio of Palestinian households with Internet connections has reached 9.2 percent.

However, despite the fact that Ramallah is considered by Palestinians to be a "liberal" city, it remains quite the predicament for a girl to walk into one of the city's many cyber cafés and have to sit in mixed sessions with males - a social and religious taboo for a large number of Palestinian families.

Several months ago a concerned West Bank mother decided to do something about this problem. Ahlam Al Tawil established the first 'girls-only' cyber café in the West Bank - Sabaya-Net (sabaya means young women).

At the heart of the town of Bireh, adjacent to Ramallah City, and on the road leading to the city of Nablus, a billboard announces the presence of the cyber café: "Sabaya-Net; cyber café for girls only!"

"I'm a mother of three girls - all now in their late teens and they're enrolled at university," the forty-something Tawil, dressed in the traditional Muslim hijab and jilbab (long dress) said. "As a former teacher I understood their academic need for reference material, and due to a lack of books they're bound to resort to the Internet to complement their reading."

Almost all the cyber cafés in Ramallah and Bireh are generally "monopolized by males", said Tawil. Many conservative families in the towns and villages surrounding Ramallah would not allow their daughters to sit with males and be subjected to harassment and misconduct, she pointed out.

"This problem has sharply decreased the number of females using the Internet, limiting it to university students and for educational purposes only - unlike the usage of their male peers," she explained.

"So, I decided to start a cyber café where girls of all ages can sit in a comfortable atmosphere, without having their parents worry about them. I would not worry about my daughters coming to a place like this."

The Palestinian entrepreneur said that attendance at her cyber café has been constantly on the rise. But she recalled that when she began her project, she faced some hurdles.

"In the beginning most girls were not so encouraged to visit the cyber café, but with time the neighborhood started trusting the place and were even glad to send their daughters here."

Occasionally, Tawil allows some males to visit the cyber café, but only for a limited time and only a certain group of people, "mostly doctors, lawyers or university students who strictly want to use the Internet for research purposes, and only if the female clients don't mind their presence," she said.

She reaffirmed the monitoring role of the cyber café manager, as even in girls-only cyber café like this one, it is essential to keep an eye on what Websites the girls are exposed to.

"For most of the time, our clients surf political, educational and Islamic Websites. During the month of Ramadan many girls increased their visits to Islamic Websites in order to educate themselves more about the month of fasting.

"But we still have our share of Internet abusers. I followed a case of a ninth grader who skipped school for three days in a row because she was addicted to chatting Websites. I informed her school headmistress and her parents of her behavior," Tawil said.

In nearby Bireh, Etaf Elayyan, a former female political prisoner of Israel, now runs the Woman Cultural Forum, which has also recently opened a female-only section for Internet usage.

Elayyan said that even young women who were not strictly religious or wore veils liked to frequent her forum's Internet corner.

"They come [to the Forum's Internet section] out of psychological comfort," Elayyan said. "Because they will not be harassed or hit on by males, and they can sit in any way they want, which would not be possible with a male presence."

In downtown Ramallah at a cyber café that admits both genders, manager Mohammed said that the owners of the café were not thinking about creating a separate section for women, "as we have good attendance and mixed sessions are not morally flawed here".

As for monitoring, Mohammed said that he and his colleagues protected computers from 'suspicious' Websites, and often dismissed people who misbehaved inside the cyber café or who surfed socially or morally unacceptable sites.

Safaa, one of the café's clients, said that she had no problem going there, as she had never been harassed or faced any other problem.

"There's a firm supervision in this cyber café and those who misbehave are instantly shown the way out," she said.

But while West Bankers may differ in their opinions regarding the use or importance of gender-specific cyber cafes, they do concur that these projects have arisen to satisfy a specific need - a necessity for conservatives and an option for liberals.

"I don't mind going to any of those cyber cafés," said Fadwa, a high-school student. "I used to go to a girls-only cyber café when I lived in Bireh, but since we moved to Ramallah I go to a mixed one, and I have no problem with that whatsoever."

ENDS

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