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Cairo's 'hijab-free' zones trigger cries of hypocrisy

This Oct. 29, 2009 photo shows an Egyptian girl in Cairo wearing a hijab, right, which covers the hair but leaves the face uncovered, as others in the background wear the niqab, which covers the entire face except the eyes.

AMR NABIL/The Canadian Press/AMR NABIL/The Canadian Press

The rise of Islamist political parties in the wake of Arab Spring revolutions has some liberals concerned about the rise of radicalism in the Middle East. But there is also evidence of a backlash. In Cairo, the latest controversy centres on several high-end bars and restaurants that have recently declared themselves "hijab-free zones," refusing veiled women entry.

Egyptian analysts note support for such bans had tended to run high among the country's elite, whose disdain for the veil has heightened as they fear an erosion of secularism as the power of the Muslim Brotherhood grows.

"Feeling besieged, this segment seems willing to accept and even embrace the kind of steps that would prompt a discrimination lawsuit and cries of Islamaphobia if they were attempted in the U.S. or Europe," Ashraf Khalil, an Egyptian-American journalist, based in Cairo, once observed.

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Dalia Rabie, a Features Editor of Daily News Egypt, wrote a recent column where she described the humiliation of being refused entry to L'Aubergine, a restaurant in Heliopolis, where she was supposed to meet with friends to celebrate her own birthday.

"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, like they needed a heads up to set up a table for me next to the kitchen," Ms. Rabie wrote.

Incensed, she left, but was struck by the absurdity of the ban, which she notes, is illegal.

Some restaurants have sought to justify the ban by claiming the presence of a veiled women may cause other customers that drink alcohol to become uncomfortable.

Another argument, which the bouncer used on Ms. Rabie that night, was that women like her are turned away out of "respect for the veil." to protect them from the "debauched world of dining," as the columnist described.

"The irony of being banned from a place because of my veil shortly after an Islamist-dominated parliament was elected was unfortunately lost on me," she concludes.

For decades, more and more Egyptian women have decided to don the veil. Many, however, see no contradiction between their dress and pushing for broader women's rights in post-Mubarak Egypt. For women like Ms. Rabie, there is no difference between an Islamist Party insisting on women wearing a veil and a restaurant insisting they leave it at home.

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"It is difficult to find humour in the hypocrisy of a society whose scorn is impossible to escape. A society where 80 per cent of women are pigeonholed for covering their hair, and the remaining 20 per cent are shunned because they don't. A society that is too consumed with bikinis and hijabs that it is forgetting to rebuild itself," Ms. Rabie writes.

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About the Author

Sonia Verma writes about foreign affairs for The Globe and Mail. Based in Toronto, she has recently covered economic change in Latin America, revolution in Egypt, and elections in Haiti. Before joining The Globe in 2009, she was based in the Middle East, reporting from across the region for The Times of London and New York Newsday. More

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