Female shisha smokers explain why they have taken up the tobacco treat and why they feel forced to keep the habit a secret.
Shisha is the sweetest taboo
In 2009, the UAE Government banned the smoking of shisha in family areas such as parks and public beaches. Recently, the Government took another lash at shisha smokers by decreeing that cafes and restaurants would have to move away from residential areas. They have until December 21 to either relocate to more industrial areas or risk being shut down.
Shisha has been an integral part of Middle Eastern culture for hundreds of years and more recently a noticeable trend in the UAE. Men have always smoked shisha in tiny cafes (ahwe) while they enjoy a game of cards. The question that remains, however, is when did women start smoking shisha so often and so publicly? (Or maybe not so publicly for some. A lot of the women you see in cafes and restaurants enjoying their shisha do it secretly, without their parents, brothers or husbands knowing.)
In this part of the world and in our society, shisha smoking has not become the norm just yet, especially for women. So why smoke it and risk getting caught? Because shisha has become a social habit - when out with friends, you order shisha. Some enjoy the different flavours and the soothing feeling of shisha, while others choose to go to cafes and restaurants and smoke because there's little else to do.
Whatever the reasons, the UAE's secret society of female shisha smokers seems to be prospering – at least for now.
Mariam Farra, 23, Syrian-Lebanese, Abu Dhabi
When did you start smoking shisha? During my freshman year of university.
Why did you start? I really don't know. It's like a blackout. I woke up one morning and I was like: 'By the way, I smoke shisha.'
Do you think it's OK that you smoke shisha? Well, yes, because I smoke it, but I know that morally it isn't, because, at the end of the day, it's still considered smoking.
Does your family know/mind that you smoke shisha? My family knows I smoke shisha. They got used to the fact but they don't like it.
Why do you still smoke shisha despite the health hazards? Shisha is more of a social thing. It is not located everywhere like cigarettes; it is only found in selected places. Most of the time nowadays people won't go to a place because they don't serve shisha. It has become a habit, a business on its own.
Why do you think shisha smoking has become so popular among women? It has always been popular. My grandmother was an 'argileh' smoker. It's always been a tradition back home. Here, I feel like it has become a trend. Even westerners enjoy smoking shisha when they come here."
Why do you smoke shisha and not cigarettes or midwakh (smoking pipe used to smoke dokha, Iranian tobacco)? I don't like other types of tobacco."
Why do you think in this part of the world it seems to be OK if a young man smokes shisha but not a young woman? The entire Arab world thinks that men can do anything while women remain in the dark. Shisha is bad for both men and women morally, but people got used to it being OK for men to smoke it, just not women."
What do you think of a young woman who smokes shisha? Most of my friends are cigarette smokers, which I don't like personally, but I believe anything you do is your own business. I won't judge."
Tala Hussein, 20, Palestinian, Dubai
When did you start smoking shisha? In high school, grade 12.
Why did you start? I started smoking shisha at gatherings where my friends would offer me a smoke and eventually I became a shisha smoker myself."
Do you think it's OK that you smoke shisha? Health-wise I know it's wrong. Other than that I see absolutely nothing wrong with it."
Does your family know/mind that you smoke shisha? My family knows I smoke shisha but not how frequently I smoke it. Then they would have a problem. They do mind, but I enjoy shisha too much to quit smoking it."
Why do you still smoke shisha despite the health hazards? I do it for the fun of it. It's a nice experience and it passes the time.
Why do you think shisha smoking has become so popular among women? The world in my opinion has become more open and the introduction of different cultures into our society has made it more acceptable for girls and women to smoke shisha than before.
Why do you smoke shisha and not cigarettes or midwakh? I like the smell and taste of shisha whereas I don't enjoy the smell or taste of cigarettes. Also, shisha is a social thing and you don't get to have it as much as a cigarette or midwakh. It's only when you go to specific places, which is better."
Why do you think in this part of the world it seems to be OK if a young man smokes shisha but not a young woman? It's not just about shisha. Guys in this part of the world are allowed to do a lot of things that women are not allowed to do. That has nothing to do with shisha specifically."
What do you think of a young woman who smokes shisha? It's normal if a girl smokes shisha, as long as she chooses the right place and knows how to act in public. Just because she's free to smoke shisha does not mean she does not have to watch the way she sits or talks while smoking in order not to give people a really wrong idea about her."
Eman Abu Mousa, 24, Palestinian, Abu Dhabi
When did you start smoking shisha? I was 15 when I first started.
Why did you start? It first began when my friends and I started sharing a shisha and eventually we each ordered our own and became shisha smokers.
Do you think it's OK that you smoke shisha? I know there's something wrong with me smoking shisha, I know it affects my health, but I do it because I like the feeling I get. from it I feel happy when I smoke shisha."
Does your family know/mind that you smoke shisha? My family knows I smoke shisha; they mind. I don't have shisha at home but, at the end, it's my choice."
Why do you still smoke shisha despite the health hazards? Shisha makes me feel relieved when I'm stressed out or angry."
Why do you think shisha smoking has become so popular among women? Many people use it for socialising. There is nothing else to do here, it's the only way for entertainment, there are no social clubs for example here and it has somehow become a trend in the country. Also, for those who don't live in their countries like myself, we don't have families here so we mostly hang out with our friends and end up going to shisha cafes."
Why do you smoke shisha and not cigarettes or midwakh? I don't like the taste of cigarettes or midwakh.
Why do you think in this part of the world it seems to be OK if a young man smokes shisha but not a young woman? It's an Arabic mentality. It's OK for men to do many things but not OK for a girl although shisha has the same effect health-wise on both. Rules are only applied to girls."
What do you think of a young woman who smokes shisha? Although I smoke shisha, sometimes I don't like it when I see a girl smoking shisha. I just see how bad it is and how it really does affect our health and that we should just all stop. I do think that cigarettes look more wrong if a girl smokes them, however."
Hiba Hassan Mzannar, 23, Lebanese, Abu Dhabi
When did you start smoking shisha? I first started when I was 15 years old.
Why did you start? I don't know. All my friends were smoking shisha so I wanted to try it as well."
Do you think it's OK that you smoke shisha? I know it's not OK. In our religion it's haram. It's not good for our health, but I like it and I can't stop it."
Does your family know/mind that you smoke shisha? My mother and siblings don't mind it but my father does and told my mother to not let me smoke shisha because it's bad for my health and I will get addicted."
Why do you still smoke shisha despite the health hazards? I enjoy it, and I am sure I'm an addict, I just can't stop it. When I was pregnant I had to stop shisha for almost five months. I went back to smoking right away after I delivered my baby.
Why do you think shisha smoking has become so popular among women? I think it's because some don't like to smoke cigarettes so they go for shisha. Shisha has no smell like cigarettes and does not leave a mark on your fingers like cigarettes do. It has a nice taste and makes you more relaxed. Also, I think that most who do it behind their parents' backs want to rebel. Anything that is forbidden they want to try out.
Why do you smoke shisha and not cigarettes or midwakh? I smoke cigarettes every now and then, but rarely. I never have a pack with me and I am sure I am not an addict. It's just every now and then. I just enjoy shisha much more."
Why do you think in this part of the world it seems to be OK if a young man smokes shisha but not a young woman? They are guys. Everything for guys in the Arab world is OK but not for women. For women there have to be specific rules and regulations. Some people think shisha smoking looks bad for a girl's image or for Arab women's image in general."
What do you think of a young woman who smokes shisha? I don't mind a girl smoking shisha because I smoke. If I weren't a smoker maybe I would look at her differently, but I always believe that people have their own freedom, so I might still find it acceptable even if I weren't a smoker myself.
Youth smoking in the UAE
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Youth Tobacco Survey for 2005 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), 19.5 per cent of all adolescents in the UAE use tobacco products. For males, the figure is 25.2 per cent and for females it is 13.2 per cent.
In addition, the WHO's Global School-based Student Health Survey for 2010 found that 80 per cent of UAE students had tried smoking.
According to the Health Authority - Abu Dhabi, the smoking rate for all Emiratis within the emirate is between 24 and 35 per cent.
About 55 per cent of Abu Dhabi smokers smoke cigarettes, 38 per cent smoke midwakh, 29 per cent smoke shisha and 14 per cent smoke cigars.
Water, a pipe, a tube, flavoured tobacco, charcoal
A SOCIAL EXPERIENCE In the UAE and the Arab world, people smoke shisha - a form of flavoured tobacco - to relax. Tobacco is often mixed with fruit flavours. The water pipe, sometimes known in other countries as a hookah, is a single-stemmed or multi-stemmed glass in which the smoke is cooled through water. The smoke then emerges through a suction tube from which it is smoked. Smoking is undertaken with a single, a double or even a triple hose. When the smoker is finished, the hose is put back on the table to show that it is available, or it is handed from one person to the next, folded back on itself so the mouthpiece is not pointing at the recipient. For sanitary reasons, smokers receive individual smaller mouthpieces that attach to the main one.
HOW IT WORKS The jar at the bottom of the water pipe is filled with water, enough to submerge a few centimetres of the tube, which is sealed to it. Tobacco is placed inside the bowl at the top of the water pipe and then a foil with a burning charcoal is placed on top. When a smoker inhales through the hose, air is drawn through the charcoal and into the bowl holding the tobacco. The hot air, heated by the charcoal, vaporises the tobacco, thereby producing smoke. This is passed down through the tube that extends into the water in the jar. It bubbles up through the water, losing heat, and fills the top part of the jar, to which the hose is attached. When a smoker inhales from the hose, smoke passes into the lungs and the change in pressure in the jar pulls more air through the charcoal.
CAFE CULTURE In cafes in the UAE, a shisha session costs between Dh35 and Dh50, depending on how trendy the establishment is. Flavours vary from apple, mint, strawberry, apricot, rose and grape. The UK has the pub, Spain has the tapas bar, and the UAE has the shisha cafe. The shisha pipe usually ranges from a small contraption (often chosen by tourists), to the normal metre-high equipment. Diehard smokers might favour the two-metre high apparatus. Many of the better cafes offer outdoor tented booths to offer privacy.
THE EFFECTS A shisha session can last about 45 minutes, and consists of 50 to 200 inhalations that can range from 0.15 to 0.5 litres of smoke. Thus, in an hour-long smoking session, users consume between 100 to 200 times the smoke of one cigarette. In a 45-minute session, a smoker would inhale 1.7 times the nicotine of a cigarette. The water used to filter the smoke does not remove harmful chemicals from it, as some believe.
HISTORY Its origins are hotly disputed, with some historians claiming the practice originated in northern India, after the European introduction of tobacco there in the 16th century. However, countries such as Turkey, Iran and Egypt also claim to have started it.
THE MOST FAMOUS SMOKER Shisha made an appearance in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865: "The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice. 'Who are YOU?' said the Caterpillar." Alice is then subjected to a bewildering array of colours and images.
THE PARTY'S OVER About 600 shisha cafes in Great Britain were forced to close after smoking bans in enclosed public spaces were imposed. Customers can still smoke outside, at tables on the pavement.