Some women find Egypt cold to the Muslim veil

Despite their numbers (at last count 90% of the female population) some veiled women say they are being discriminated against in Egypt.

How sad, that the once secular country of Egypt, is becoming fundamentalized by the Islamists.

CAIRO, Egypt — It was graduation night. Sarah el-Sirgany had just wrapped up her studies at the prestigious American University in Cairo, and

Sarah El Sirgany
Sarah El Sirgany

she was ready to celebrate with friends. Sirgany, from a well-to-do Egyptian family, made her way to the center of town, a veil — or hijab — wrapped loosely, yet carefully, around her head. She walked the gangplank of one of the Nile’s posh boats and asked the manager of the restaurant inside to lead her to her friends’ table.

“The bouncer at the door told me I can’t get in,” she said. “Honestly, it was too late into the night to get into an argument. But it was infuriating. I just told my friends to come out to meet me.” The reason she was denied entry? Her veil.

Sirgany had dared step into the battle between Egypt’s secular past and increasingly religious present. She had sought entry to a restaurant filled with wine drinking upper-class Egyptians, many of whom still eschew the veil.

This young Egyptian herself exists somewhere in the middle of a growing cultural divide. She has the money to eat at the high-end restaurants and many of her friends don’t don the veil. Increasingly, though, women like Sirgany are finding themselves without a place as the Egyptian upper class fights to keep conservative strains of Islam from gaining access to its social circles.

“I think certain places want to paint a certain image about their clientele,” she said, “and having veiled women inside is seen as a potential contradiction to this image.” The trend toward veiling in Egypt began 20 or 30 years ago among Egypt’s lowest economic rungs. The reasons for this, say scholars, was varied.

After the fall of Arab nationalism, which reached its peak in the 1950s and ’60s, many here saw the region’s culture as a rudderless ship, without clear identity or relation to the West. So many turned to Islam, rallying around it as a means of creating a unique regional character.

It was also around this time that many women abandoned their traditional roles as homemakers and entered the work force. Some women took on the veil to maintain a measure of the privacy afforded to them in their past lives as stay-at-home wives.

And wearing a veil also took care of a practical problem for low-income Egyptian women. “Some women can’t afford 2 million dresses,” said Isis Nusair, a professor of women’s studies at Denison University in Ohio, “and wearing the hijab is cheap.” Over the years, the conservative form of Islam that compelled women to wear a veil crept slowly through the socioeconomic ranks. Estimates are that upwards of 90 percent of Muslim women in Egypt today wear the veil.

And now Egypt’s elite upper class, the well-traveled sorts who tend to sneer at what they view as a backwards practice, is fighting to keep secularism alive in its ranks.

While some high-end restaurateurs turn veiled women away at the door, they are hardly the only warriors in this cultural skirmish. Many of the beaches that line Egypt’s north coast follow similar practices, forbidding veiled women from enjoying their sands. Some establishments encourage veiled women to visit nearby women-only beaches, where they can lounge and swim under tents that extend far into the Mediterranean.

Even so, not all veils are created equal. Some establishments will let veiled women enter as long as their veil is considered trendy. A loose scarf with fashionable clothes might get a pass, while a niqab — the kind of dress that exposes nothing but the eyes — might not be welcome. GLOBAL POST

To veil or not to veil, in Egypt, that is the question.