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Khalid Al-Karimi

Yemeni women turn to shisha amid ordeal of war

Shisha shop owners are seeing rising numbers of female customers [Getty]

Date of publication: 14 February, 2018

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Health fears go up in smoke amid risk of death through war or disease, reports Khalid al-Karimi.

Zahra Nasser lives in Yemen's Sanaa, a city under almost continuous airstrikes. Anything that brings a better mood is highly precious. Nasser has one thing which brings some joy to her life: smoking shisha.

While the war has displaced millions and killed thousands, millions more are continuing desperately trying to live some semblance of normality, trying to cope with surviving this war.

"Smoking shisha has become an unavoidable daily habit. I cannot live without it. Some shisha, along with quiet music lights the day up with pleasure," says Nasser.

It was 2015 when Nasser began smoking shisha. At the time, Yemen slid into civil strife, with thousands of young people driven out of their jobs and many others losing focus on their studies.

"One day in 2015, I visited my friend. She gave me the shisha pipe when I was sitting in her home. I rejected it, but she argued the shisha was good and not harmful," Nasser remembers.

Today, I smoke shisha in the house daily from afternoon until the sunset. I like it because it lends a sense of happiness as the multi-faceted crises encircle us



Shisha tobacco is flavoured - apple, grape and strawberry are all popular. Shisha smokers need only a pipe, bowl and a mouthpiece.

Nasser's first puff eventually led to forming a habit.

"Today, I smoke shisha in the house daily from afternoon until the sunset. I like it because it lends a sense of happiness as the multi-faceted crises encircle us," said Nasser.

Breaking social norms

It was not traditionally common to see women in Yemen browsing and buying tobacco types, says Hanan Ali, a Yemeni sociologist in Sanaa.

"The social norms could shame the women if they smoke shisha in the past. Today, this norm has been broken, and female shisha smokers are in abundance," said Ali.

Yemen is a conservative society. Breaking traditional barriers does not happen overnight.

"I remember the time when women smoked shisha secretly away from their relatives' eyes. Now, they do not need to hide, and they pleasantly do it at home at any time," Ali added.
 
She describes the growth of women smoking as "contagious".

"One woman in the house may begin smoking shisha, and then she attracts other family members. This is how shisha is gaining popularity in society," she said.

Raising awareness about shisha-related health risks at this time may not work effectively. Some would say there are other grave issues that have to be uncovered to the public in Yemen and the world



While shisha remains a harmful rising issue in Yemen, Ali argues, the country has more serious troubles to worry about - poverty, epidemics and war.

"Raising awareness about shisha-related health risks at this time may not work effectively. Some would say there are other grave issues that have to be uncovered to the public in Yemen and the world."

Rise of female shisha smokers

Shisha shop owners say the number of female customers is rising in Sanaa, and the demand for shisha has only increased in light of the war and the deteriorating economic situation.

Mohammed Abbas, who owns a shisha shop in Sanaa, said the product continues to sell well, pointing out that women are regular customers.

"Shisha buyers are not women only. Male customers do buy. But the number of female customers has grown bigger," he said.

"In the past, shisha shops existed only in Hadda neighbourhood. Nowadays, they are everywhere, and the majority of parents see no fault when their daughters or sons smoke shisha," said Abbas.

I reject leaving the house to visit friends or relatives because I do not know if they will provide shisha or not. I feel shisha is essential every day



Buthaina is a 27-year-old university student in Sanaa. She said shisha smoking has become part of her daily routine.

"I reject leaving the house to visit friends or relatives because I do not know if they will provide shisha or not," she said. "I feel shisha is essential every day."

It has been only two years since Buthaina began to smoke. "My mother and I are addicts now," she confessed.

Though the war has crippled the country's economy, driving millions to the brink of famine, Buthaina said her mother always manages to keep shisha available in the house.

"We feel joyful while smoking shisha and chewing qat [a leagy plant with mildly hallucinogenic effects]. That is why we keep the shisha within reach."

Shisha smokers in Yemen appear not fully aware of the damage their habit is doing to their health.

A World Health Organisation (WHO) report indicates that the volume of smoke inhaled in an hour-long shisha session is estimated to be equal to smoking between 100 and 200 cigarettes.

"Addiction has gripped us tightly in this desperate situation of the country," said Nasser. "Even if it is harmful, it brings some relief in this bleak time."

Khalid Al-Karimi is a freelance reporter and translator. He is a staff member of the Sanaa-based Yemeni Media Center and previously worked as a full-time editor and reporter for the Yemen Times newspaper.

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