There are few pleasures left for Gaza's 1.5 million people, squeezed by both a blockade and Hamas
efforts to impose its strict Muslim lifestyle. And women here just lost another one.
Gaza's Hamas rulers have banned women from smoking water pipes in cafes, sending plainclothes agents through popular beachside spots last Sunday to enforce the edict. Some women in the Palestinian territory are grumbling.
"This is silly," said Haya Ahmed, a 29-year-old accountant who said she has smoked water pipes for 10 years. "We are not smoking in the streets but in restaurants, where only a few people can enter."
She predicted the ban would actually make water pipes more tempting for rebellious young women. "Everything forbidden becomes desirable. The decision will lead to more smokers," Ahmed said.
Many Gazans pile into beach cafes in the evenings to puff on water pipes well into the wee hours of the morning. Islamic law does not ban women from smoking the traditional tobacco-infused pipes, but many frown upon the practice.
The water pipe restrictions are just the latest in a yearlong Hamas campaign to gradually enforce a strict Muslim life code on the people of Gaza - many of whom are conservative Muslims themselves and not entirely opposed. But the secular minority feels the crunch.
Hamas, the Islamic militant group that overran Gaza three years ago, has banned women from riding motorbikes – mostly impoverished women riding behind their husbands on cheaply bought Vespas. Teenage girls are pressured by their Hamas-loyal school teachers to cover up in loose robes and headscarves.
Men, meanwhile, are the ones mostly targeted if they are seen alongside women in public. And they too are bullied by Hamas officials if they dress in ways considered too Western – like shorts instead of long pants.
Hamas frequently mixes its strict interpretation of Islamic law with conservative Gaza tradition. Over the weekend, the two dovetailed to produce the smoking ban.
"It is inappropriate for a woman to sit cross-legged and smoke in public. It harms the image of our people," Ihab Ghussein, Hamas Interior Ministry spokesman, said in a statement Sunday. Police spokesman Ayman Batneiji claimed husbands have divorced wives who smoked in public, without substantiating his claim.
Many residents are deeply sensitive to any effort by Hamas to infringe on leisure activities in the territory, which already are limited. A three-year-long blockade by Israel and Egypt has depressed the economy, limiting options in entertainment and practically every other facet of life.
Some women were seen smoking hookahs Sunday, despite the ban. Natasha Ali was taking turns puffing on a water pipe with her husband, Suleiman, at a seaside restaurant Sunday evening.
"I don't think that anyone could force me to do something against my freedom or my wife's freedom," said Suleiman Ali.
However, many in Gaza see the water pipe as inappropriate for women because of its sexual connotation and because it looks crass for ladies to smoke, said Palestinian anthropologist Ali Qleibo.
It's a sentiment shared in conservative Saudi Arabia, where both sexes are banned from smoking hookahs. It's frowned upon in Egypt, too, although women frequently smoke in trendy restaurants out of view of the general public. Women in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan openly smoke water pipes.
Hamas sometimes backs down when Gazans resist new rules. A ban on men working in ladies hair salons was never enforced, and a demand that female lawyers cover their hair before they enter courtrooms was quietly rescinded.
But Hamas has successfully banned women from riding motorbikes. Last year the group swooped down on moonshiners, banned foreigners from bringing alcohol into Gaza and ordered shopkeepers to take down scantly clad mannequins.
Plainclothes officers frequently stop couples walking in the streets, demanding to see marriage licenses. Some residents say they have been interrogated, even beaten, on suspicion they are gay or had extramarital sex.
Six young men told The Associated Press that they were all harassed by plainclothes agents who demanded they move away from women they were walking with, because they weren't married. One man said he was detained and slapped around.
Human rights activist Subhiya Juma said she is aware of hundreds of similar cases.
An Internet cafe owner said he was ordered to ban women from his establishment last year after another plainclothes agent saw women smoking inside. Two other Gaza cafe owners said they asked men and women to sit at separate tables to avoid harassment by Hamas police.
In Gaza, art cafe owner Jamal Abu Qumsan, 43, was accused of having extramarital sex in May. The allegations were made during an interrogation that began over a hip-hop concert he wanted to host. Hamas officials are reluctant to allow Western-style music performances in Gaza, musicians say.
Abu Qumsan said Hamas police whipped him, leaving red welts along his legs and buttocks during hours-long interrogations over several days. He has released photographs showing the wounds.
It's unclear how many similar cases exist. Few other Gazans would acknowledge being targeted for their sex lives because of the shame of even being suspected of deviating from the territory's conservative sexual codes.
Last year, a 23-year-old man was interrogated for a week over rumors he was gay. He requested anonymity for fear of further reprisals. In another case, the New York-based Human Rights Watch reported that a gay man was held in a Gaza jail.
Ghussein, the Interior Ministry spokesman, denied claims they were trying to coerce Gazans into adopting a strictly Islamic lifestyle.
"If we wanted to make Gaza like the Taliban, then we could have done that very easily," Ghussein said.