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.
It was also around this time that many women abandoned their traditional roles as homemakers and entered the work force. Some women took on the veil to maintain a measure of the privacy afforded to them in their past lives as stay-at-home wives.
And wearing a veil also took care of a practical problem for low-income Egyptian women.
“Some women can’t afford 2 million dresses,” said Isis Nusair, a professor of women’s studies at Denison University in Ohio, “and wearing the hijab is cheap.”
Over the years, the conservative form of Islam that compelled women to wear a veil crept slowly through the socioeconomic ranks. Estimates are that upwards of 90 percent of Muslim women in Egypt today wear the veil.
And now Egypt’s elite upper class, the well-traveled sorts who tend to sneer at what they view as a backwards practice, is fighting to keep secularism alive in its ranks.
While some high-end restaurateurs turn veiled women away at the door, they are hardly the only warriors in this cultural skirmish.
Many of the beaches that line Egypt’s north coast follow similar practices, forbidding veiled women from enjoying their sands. Some establishments encourage veiled women to visit nearby women-only beaches, where they can lounge and swim under tents that extend far into the Mediterranean. Even so, not all veils are created equal. Some establishments will let veiled women enter as long as their veil is considered trendy. A loose scarf with fashionable clothes might get a pass, while a niqab — the kind of dress that exposes nothing but the eyes — might not be welcome.
The Egyptian government has had mixed reactions to the controversy. Strictly speaking, it embraces Sharia law as supreme. As such, it bans all Egyptians from drinking on religious holidays and forbids, absolutely, Egyptians from entering casinos.
But these nods to Egypt’s Islamic legacy are not without critics, even from within the highest ranks of government.
In 2006, long-serving Culture Minister Farouk Hosni openly complained about movement toward the veil.
“There was an age when our mothers went to university and worked without the veil. It is in that spirit that we grew up. So why this regression?” he said in the controversial interview.
Egypt’s conservative factions and a number of newspapers lambasted him for months following the comments, keeping alive Egypt’s scandal of the year.
In this cultural brawl, though, it’s clear that Islam has the momentum since members of the upper class are increasingly taking on the veil.
But a vocal minority from the upper class is committed to continuing the fight and keeping people like Sirgany out of the bars, restaurants and beaches they consider to be their final bastions of secularism.
"Sorry, but that’s up to me to decide, not anyone else," said El Sirgany, discussing where she chooses to spend her evenings. "If I want to go to a pub with friends or on my own, if I want to drink alcohol while wearing the veil — I don’t drink by the way — it’s only up to me.
"People who find a problem with that, really need to get over themselves. If they can’t reconcile their own stereotypes with new realities, then it’s their problem, not mine."
(Photo: Sarah el-Sirgany)