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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.

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)