In the Middle East, hijab—the headscarves and veils worn by women to connote their Muslim faith—can elicit a variety of reactions depending on the country, region, or even city by city. In some areas, they're considered almost mandatory; however, in Egypt, they're suffering from a dualistic identity.
Although the vast majority of women currently wear headscarves in Egypt, the cosmopolitan crowd has more and more frequently taken to denying hijab-wearers from high-end restaurants, clubs, cafes, and resorts.
In addition to a growing Facebook group called Respect My Veil, Egypt's social media has recently been swept by the hashtag #against_hijab_racism, where women are sharing stories about experiencing discrimination in public spaces because of their scarves; there have been reports of veiled women being forbidden from entering restaurants and hotels, and even being thrown out of trendy bars.
The justification:unveiled guests in Westernized environments might perceive the scarves as pedestrian, or feel uncomfortable that they might be being judged for drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes in the presence of others who are religious. Although 90 percent of Egyptians are Muslim, this type of discrimination has become increasingly popular in tourist-heavy areas such as the northern coast, and cities such as Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada.
But the Egyptian constitution forbids discrimination based on gender, race, or religion, and officials are now taking a stand to ensure that the snobbery will stop, and that women with headscarves can eat, drink, and hang wherever they wish.
Egypt's Minister of Tourism Khaled Abbas Rami has declared that any restaurants or hotels that forbid service to women women dressed in hijab will be "shut down."
"We refuse discrimination in all its form," he said in an interview with El-Watan, claiming that "immediate steps" will be taken by the government to take on establishments that deny veiled women. He also added that 90 percent of women wear the hijab, meaning that allowing such regulations would be very problematic.
In May, Rami offered a personal apology to a Saudi tourist who was prohibited from eating a restaurant in Sheik Zayed because of his traditional robe and headwear, and the eatery was shut down for a month because of the incident.
But yesterday, another tourism ministry spokesperson, Rasha Azaizi, said on an Egyptian talk show that formal legislation had not been put in place to fight the discrimination. She did, however, implore citizens to file complaints about any businesses that exhibit this type of discrimination.
And Mervat Tellawy—the head of Egypt's National Council of Women—recently argued that restaurants should be allowed to refuse service for attire, with or without a religious element. "An establishment that prevents hijab-wearing women is just like any other that would ban a man for not wearing a suit," she told Al-Arabiya.
From the 1920s to 1970s, veils all but disappeared from Egypt's cultural vernacular, only to become commonplace after the rise of Islamism in the region in the 1970s. In recent years, journalists and even officials have publicly fretted that the return to hijab has been "regressive," but many Egyptian women have insisted that the scarves are more about identity and even empowerment than oppression.
The controversy seems to rage on. But the risk of getting closed down could be enough to take down a few figurative (or even literal) velvet ropes at Egyptian restaurants and bars—hey, women with headscarves like to eat well, too.