'Respecting the hijab' in Egypt

'Respecting the hijab' in Egypt
A campaign in Egypt brings to light cases of discrimination by high-class establishments against women who wear the hijab, reflecting the wider issue of social segregation in the country.
4 min read
04 Aug, 2015
Although hijab is becoming the norm in Egypt, there are still cases of discrimination [Getty]
A new campaign in Egypt seeks to document cases of discrimination against women barred entry to hotels, restaurants and cafes for wearing the hijab.

The Facebook campaign Respect My Veil compiled a list of establishments in Egypt that have banned or discriminate against the veil.

This included five-star hotels like the JW Marriott and the Grand Hotel in Hurgada, where full-bodied swimming costumes - worn by many veiled women - are banned.

The campaign also found particular neighbourhoods where the modest attire was frowned upon.

The "upper-class" area of Zamelek, supposedly inspired by the "desire for self-expression" was found to continuously discriminate against conservative and traditional clothing.

Furthermore, The Lemon Tree, a restaurant in Zamelek, has gone to the extent of restricting entry to any female dressed in the hijab after 6pm.

Dalia Rabie was one of many who was denied entry due to her attire. She spoke of her humiliation at being banned entry to l’Aubergine restaurant in Heliopolis.  

"Fully aware of his employer's hypocrisy, the bouncer cringed as he asked me if I had 'notified' anyone that I was veiled when I made the reservations" Rabie wrote in Daily News Egypt.

"Like they needed a heads up to set up a table for me next to the kitchen" she added.

Some restaurant owners have defended their decision on the ban, saying their alcohol drinking customers "feel uncomfortable" around the presence of women in hijabs.

But with Egypt seeking to increase tourism from the socially conservative Gulf region, its discrimination against conservative clothing in high-class establishments may become more difficult to uphold.

Earlier this year, a Saudi national was barred entry into a restaurant in Egypt for wearing a thobe - an ankle-length Arab garment. The incident, caught on camera, caused Egypt's Tourism Minister, Khaled Abbas Rami, to issue a personal apology.

Later speaking to Egypt's daily newspaper, al-Watan, the minister stated the government will take "immediate steps" to "shut down any restaurant or tourism facility" that initiates such a ban.

"We refuse discrimination in all its forms, whether it’s based on dress, skin colour or religion," Rami said.

'Islamic influence'

In 2012, a number of institutions in Egypt implemented a hijab ban as an apparent attempt to "counter" the supposed Islamic influence of the Muslim Brotherhood – the largest opposition party in Egypt’s modern history.

Over time, the hijab has elicited a variety of responses in Egypt.

Some view the headscarf as a political statement, identified with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The wife of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was ridiculed in some quarters, as she wore the "khimar" – a hijab associated with lower class women that covers the upper body.

Others treat the conservative clothing as part of the class divide, for example calling an upper class woman who put on the veil a "peasant".

Currently, the hijab is worn by a vast majority of Egyptian women, and although it now has less political ramifications, women still face discrimination.

Social segregation

Money also plays a pivotal role in cementing social segregation in Cairo.

Some hotels and restaurants impose arbitrary entry fees and hefty minimum charges, which many see as attempts to bar all, but the wealthiest Egyptians, from such spots.  

In her book on Class, Gender and Public Space in Cairo, Anouk de Koning argues that the inclusion of wealthier women into social spaces has further cemented class divides in the city.

Koning argues that "fear surrounding upper-middle class women has come to legitimise social segregation in Egypt".

This has serious implications for lower-middle or working class females in Cairo, who cannot afford the "safe spaces" of these international-styled establishments.

Their choices thus become more limited to less female-friendly environments, particularly after a certain time of night, such as a local qahawi on the street or pop-up cafes on bridges.

The few locally-priced cafes with mixed-sex clientele are concentrated in the downtown area and are currently subject to frequent clearing of police.

Borsa, a popular café with a reputation for being frequented by young activists has recently been forced to close down.

Cairo generally has a lack of free public space that all can use, a campaign, entitled Right to the City, has found.

Even al-Azhar park, built to try and rectify this problem, has an entrance sum of eight Egyptian pounds per-person, a possible problematic fee for a population who lives on less than 16 EGP a day.      

In a city already facing grave poverty, discrimination against dress is just another way of reinforcing the increasing issue of class segregation in public space.