The Cloth Divide
The Cloth Divide
Photo Credit: Mohammed Sehety
Available at: http://egypttoday.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=8825
As religious scholars and politicians debate the veil, the segregation it seems to inspire is often overlooked.
By: Ethar El-Katatney
WHEN IT COMES to Islamic dress codes, Egypt seems to be at loggerheads with itself. In recent generations, more and more women have donned some form of veil, be it hijab or niqab. The perceived political, religious and social reasons for doing so are not always welcome.
In October 2009, Sheikh Al-Azhar Mohamed Tantawi, head of the Sunni world’s most influential institution, banned the niqab in female-only classes and dormitories, saying the face veil was not an Islamic duty; Cairo University followed suit. The Ministry of Health has also pushed to prohibit nurses from wearing the niqab.
Beyond official edicts, the popularity of the veil has led to unspoken social segregation, sometimes to accommodate and sometimes to exclude muhajabat (veiled women.)
No Men Allowed…
In the past, the veil was worn mainly in the poor, rural classes. As the number of veiled women with disposable income increased, women-only services have sprung up to accommodate them, with mixed success.
“I see this trend as something very good because […] veiled women are also members of this society with their needs,” says actress Hanan Turk, who veiled in 2006. A year later, she opened Sabaya, a combination café and hairdresser which only serves women. “You must give them alternatives to services that would have required them to interact with men.”
Shortly after it opened, rumors spread that Sabaya not only excluded men, but Christian and non-veiled women as well — claims that Turk rigorously denied. Even with Turk’s reassurances that her café welcomed all women, it never took off: Sabaya is closing for lack of customers. Yet Turk defends her business model, claiming that the café is folding because, “Society doesn’t accept that there is a sacred space just for women.”
Dr. Huda Lutfi, professor of Islamic Studies at the American University in Cairo, disagrees. “Our culture is becoming more and more superficially religious,” she says. “To reduce religion to wearing the veil and segregation is reductionist; it is not what the faith is about.”
Lutfi, who teaches a graduate course titled Veiling and the Construction of an Islamic Identity, believes that a large segment of local women who veil do so for reasons other than faith: “The hijab came into fashion in the last decade, and society pressures women to wear it, whether at work, school or home.” Thus women-only services will succeed only if they fulfill the needs of all women, not just muhajabat.
La Femme, the women-only beach in the North Coast compound of Marina, is a prime example. “Not only veiled women come to La Femme,” says Osama Amir, manager of Living Well, the company that owns La Femme. “We are a culture that values modesty, and so it gives all women a safe space to dance and laugh and swim without having anyone look at them disapprovingly. At the same time, just like men like to go to an ahwa just for men, why is it strange if women go to a place just for women?”
Critics fear, however, that voluntary segregation is spreading to other aspects of life. Last month, authorities in Alexandria began considering a women-only taxi service, following the success of Cairo’s women-only metro train cars.
In response, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) issued a strongly worded press release: “[This] project is segregation towards women and a naïve attempt to solve a problem that will in turn have dangerous effects on social and security problems [and the] participation of women in public life. [It] may extend to universities, workplaces, and other public spaces, which will contribute to the dangerous termination of development efforts.”
The push for women-only services may be driven not so much by religious conviction as by the issue of sexual harassment. A highly publicized ECWR survey indicated that 83 percent of Egyptian women are sexually harassed at least once a day.
“I’d rather go to a women-only lingerie store or be squished in the women-only carriage in the metro even if there’s space on the normal carriage, just to stop the harassment” says 26-year-old veiled public university student Reem Ahmed. “Although I wish I didn’t have to.”
…And No Muhajabat
Some businesses take the opposite approach with no-veiled staff policies. “I wish I didn’t have to enforce it but unfortunately it’s management’s rules,” says the store manager of a high-end clothing store that does not hire veiled sales staff. The manager spoke on condition of anonymity while commenting on hiring practices. “They say it’s because people are more likely to buy from non-veiled women, but I don’t understand why this is the case.”
Some women compromise by traveling to their jobs in hijab, then taking off their veils inside. “I know it’s haram what I’m doing,” says Amal El-Sayyed, a 22-year-old waitress in a restaurant, “but most of my friends do the same. And if a place is nice and lets them wear the hijab, they make them tie it behind their head Spanish style so it’s not so obvious.”
Other restaurants go even further, refusing to serve veiled clients. Although few venues will admit it, dozens of veiled women report stories of being turned away from upscale restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
Last month, popular Nile-bank restaurant Sequoia posted the following on Twitter: “Just so we can set the record straight, despite what some people at some newspapers say, we never had a ‘No hijab allowed’ policy. Sequoia reservation policy has many restrictions, but never one based on religious parameters. Muhajabat have always been welcome!”
Even so, many women have reported being told over the phone by Sequoia employees that veiled women were not allowed.
“The official policy is that there is no problem with hijab,” says Mahmoud Ashraf, Sequoia’s public relations manager. “But what happened is that the reservations desk used to see that there is alcohol served and so took it upon themselves to ask if the woman was veiled. But this will not happen anymore.”
Ashraf thinks that some may discriminate for business reasons. “Places which serve alcohol pay a lot of money for an alcohol license. So in order to mitigate the cost they prefer having clientele who will drink. The possibility of hijabis or people who hang out with hijabis drinking is low. So I think it is a purely business decision.”
There’s also the consideration that people drinking “may feel threatened with the presence of hijabis, who remind them [of religion] when they don’t want to think about it,” says Lutfi. “And if they’re uncomfortable they won’t come, which means [lost customers]. These are things an establishment has to think hard about.”
A no-veil policy also reflects socio-economic issues. Lutfi notes, “I think it is more a class thing, since the more chic hijab is more acceptable. The way women wear the hijab intersects with class. If you are wearing the latest fashion and a branded veil, then you are obviously high class.”
The unspoken assumption is that being more covered implies less social standing, which is why some women say they are asked over the phone by business establishments if they wear hijab Spanish style, a less conspicuous way of determining status.
After taking the business and social factors into account, it seems that the debate about whether the veil is a step forward or backward is actually just dancing around much deeper societal issues. et