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Some Muslims find Egypt a colder place

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

A woman wearing a bikini walks past a woman wearing a niqab on a beach in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, about 220 kilometers northwest of Cairo, Aug. 7, 2009. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)

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