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In Cairo, No Service for Veiled Women in Some Restaurants

  • Jessica Desvarieux

An estimated 80 percent of Egyptian women wear Islamic head coverings, and the numbers are growing. But, in Egypt, if you wear a head covering, the most common is called a higab, some high-end Cairo restaurants choose not to serve you. Owners say the policy is a sign of respect for piety since they also serve alcohol, banned in Islam. However, many women who cover their heads argue that the policy is discrimination.

About 80 percent of Egyptian women cannot get service at some restaurants. Not because of what's in their wallets but what's on their heads. The higab and other Islamic head coverings have been banned at some trendy restaurants and bars in Cairo.

Twenty-three year-old Minna Mahmoud with her hair covered in a higab says she's been denied entrance to a few clubs and restaurants. One time, she says a bouncer stopped her from entering a club.

"And the man he looked at me, just checking me out, and he said, 'I'm sorry you can't enter the place.' I was like, 'why?' 'Umm, you're veiled,'" Mahmoud said.

Mahmoud says she had to walk away. Mahmoud like many other women often don't know the policy exists until they show up. There are no signs posted outside windows but rather veiled women often know through the places reputation.

Alcohol could pose problem

Owners argue that the policy exists because they serve alcohol, forbidden in Islam.

L'Aubergine, in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, is one of those restaurants. With its stainless steel sign, this restaurant transforms the top floor into a lounge at night.

General Manager Hesham Ragab says that most women who are covered are not interested in the lounge section of the restaurant because there is alcohol.

Ragab says that women who are covered don't want to enter places with alcohol anyway. It would a major problem wearing the higab and drinking alcohol.

However, not all restaurants that serve alcohol have these policies.

Buddha bars allows entrance

At Buddha Bar, with a towering statue of Buddha in the center, veiled women are allowed entrance but they are rarely spotted as the night continues.

With the increasing popularity of Islamic head coverings, businesses that isolate a growing demographic could face cash flow problems.

Minna Mahmoud says some of the restaurants that ban covered women want to present a westernized image to their upper class clientele.

"Most of the lower classes are veiled that's true. And most of the higher class are not veiled. They are living the life," Mahmoud said.

Rights issue?

The Egyptian Center for Women's Rights says establishments that ban covered women are not violating the law because they are privately owned. But representative for the organization Marwa Moukhtar nevertheless questions those that ban higabs.

"Restaurants have a choice to allow whoever inside their restaurant. But just because you're wearing a higab doesn't mean you will drink alcohol. The policy doesn't make sense."

She says that restaurants are within their rights to not allow veiled women entrance. But she rebuffs that based on the constitution, women should not be discrimnated against because of their religion.

Mahmoud says these policies should be challenged and changed.

"You can't tell me I can't enter the place," Mahmoud said. "That's very humiliating. God gave us the choice. You're not going to give me the choice?"

A choice she hopes more women will speak up about.