The rising allure of smoking for Yemeni women

By Asma Al-Mohattwari

As time has passed and Arab countries have become more open, some customs and traditions have begun to be ignored. Among these was an understanding that smoking was restricted to men and older women. However, recent times have seen large increases in the number of young Arab women and teenagers who smoke.

In Yemeni society, the stigma against female smokers persists; however, it can be said that majority of women smoke at least casually. Many years ago, it was essentially accepted that old, married and uneducated women would smoke ‘mada’a’ at women’s meetings and parties known as ‘tafreta’. Now, the habit, and especially the smoking of shisha has spread to unmarried, educated women and young, even adolescent, girls.

The emergence of this phenomenon did not occur in isolation; some of the factors which have aided its rise include a lack of supervision and awareness on the part of parents and rapidly changing lifestyles in Yemen.

Salma Ahmed, 45, said she picked up the habit of smoking from her mother. When she was child, she prepared shisha for her mother every day. Soon preparation led to imitation; her mother didn’t attempt to stop her from smoking and Salma soon found herself addicted.

Today, a large part of Yemeni women’s enjoyment of parties involves chewing qat and smoking. Samira Al-Manssor said that after marriage she began attending parties with her friends. At the parties, she discovered that most women were smoking. She also found these same women attempting to convince her that to smoke shisha was not shameful and that it gave one a pleasant feeling.

At first, she refused to smoke. Soon, however, after falling victim to peer pressure, Samira began chewing qat and smoking shisha.

“Now, after six years, I can’t pass a day without qat and shisha,” she said.

Young women have increasingly begun to hold private shisha-smoking sessions in their homes. Shisha differs from mada’a in that it comes in different flavors such as grape, strawberry, apple and others. The place where friends will gather will be prepared with incense, San’aani songs, and drinks – including cold water, Pepsi, malt beverages and ginger beer – will be served.

These preparations are considered to foster an atmosphere conducive to psychological release, which plays a part in attracting women to smoking shisha. Nasim Abdu, 23, is married and has three children; she said she enjoys smoking shisha and won’t stop smoking because it is provides her with a way to vent her concerns and troubles in a society which leads one to feelings of distress.

As women have become more aware of their rights, the drive to attain equal status with men has perhaps had some unexpected results. Seeing that men freely indulge in the habits, many educated Yemeni women have adopted the understanding they, too, should feel free to smoke and chew qat.

University student Alia Ali said that although her father has said she is not allowed to smoke, she still smokes in the company of her friend. Alia said she believed she had the right to smoke because her brother does so.

“It’s not fair that he allows my brother to, while preventing me. Where’s the equality?” she asked.

According to a report conducted by the World Health Organization, the number of smokers in Yemen has raised in recent years. Yemen ranked first among Arab nations with smokers comprising 60% of the population.

Researcher and psychologist Dr. Najat Al-Sae said that in her opinion, the key factor behind the spread of the shisha smoking phenomenon in Yemeni society is access to satellite television channels and advertisements which convey images of Arab women smoking shisha.

Al-Saem believed that a number of negative consequences can be attached to women smoking shisha and chewing qat, including anxiety, depression, appetite loss, and feelings of guilt. She said that many of these feelings arise when Yemeni women leave their homes and children for four or more hours a day to partake in the habits.