By Anya Vanecek, Aswat Masriya
At the top of Ahmed Orabi Street, seven Americans smiled impishly at the Cairo Jazz Club bouncer. Not one was carrying an ID – or over the minimum age of 25; he didn’t seem to mind. From the centre of the pack, I twirled the hanging ends of my Spanish-styled headscarf. He did mind that. Pointing directly at my covered head, the bouncer demanded I show my ID. Adopting a pointed American accent, I replied, “I don’t carry it with me.” The bouncer scolded me, but allowed me to follow my friends into the club. “Bring it with you next time,” he warned.
Cairo Jazz Club is one of many high-end, alcohol-serving establishments which have come under fire in recent years for turning veiled women away – allegedly for morality’s sake. An article published four years ago by Ashraf Khalil for the Egypt Independent reported that “several club owners and patrons, when asked about the issue [of these unofficial hijab-free zones], questioned why someone who is truly devout would want to be in a nightclub or bar in the first place.”
The assumption made when turning these women away is that a headscarf is a symbol of morality, and that such supposed morals clash with the nature of the establishment. The woman isn’t allowed because she simply doesn’t belong there; a priestess in a gentlemen’s club.
At a press conference held in the United Arab Emirates at the beginning of May 2013, tourism minister Hisham Zaazou said “bikinis are welcome in Egypt and booze is still being served.” In other words, foreigners – and their morals – are more than welcome. It is Egyptians whose morals need monitoring; the rest are free to enter, assuming they look the part.
“For decades, more and more Egyptian women have decided to don the veil,” stated a 2012 article in The Globe and Mail. Some ascribe this to a rise in Islamism. “Many [of those women], however, see no contradiction between their dress and pushing for broader women’s rights in post-Mubarak Egypt.”
Indeed, women deserve to act how they please. Whether more and more Egyptian women are wearing hijab as a religious statement or a fashion trend is immaterial, except that Cairo’s elite establishments have recognized this trend and decided to take advantage of it. By prohibiting head-scarves, they are simultaneously prohibiting a vast majority of Egyptian women and subtly forming the shape of their clientele. The goal is exclusivity.
Unfortunately, by imposing this exclusivity, these clubs are also propagating women’s struggle for autonomy. To enter Cairo Jazz Club, for instance, a woman must choose between her “morality” and her freedom to go where she pleases. Simultaneously, she must choose her identity and play the part. She’ll either be good or naughty, Egyptian or other. Either she will look like she fits in or she won’t.
These clubs could not care less about the morality of their patrons. Their concern is their image and what or who is tainting it. Tough luck to the woman whose look does not fit their mould.
“I’m sure there’s an element of class warfare,” said one socialite in a Kipp Report article. “It’s a remnant of the old days when the hijab was considered low class.” More progressive, Westernised Egyptians reject the hijab for social, not religious, reasons. Overt religiosity is out of fashion. By dropping the hijab, Egyptian women are able to blend into the ambiguous, elite “other” whose prestige arises from simply not conforming to the expectations of its culture. This ambiguity could be liberating, if it wasn’t so restrictive.
Rarely is a woman in public granted the freedom to exist without judgement. She is forever adorned with and accused of acting as a symbol of something: her skirt is either modestly long or shamefully short, her expression either hostile or flirtatious. Despite the intention behind a woman’s outward appearance, society is constantly confining women in shallow judgements, allowing her to exist only in certain ways and areas of her world. Often, these are imposed not only on the woman herself, but on the group she seems to represent. A woman’s integrity might be as much determined by her peers as by herself. A woman cannot choose which group an onlooker may clump her into, how one interprets her dress or stance, what she represents to them, or how they react to her. She cannot choose where she belongs.
Ultimately, it should not matter what a woman wears. Her piety is not sewn into her hijab, nor is her worth. No aspect of her external person defines her character. Fashion trends always carry some message, it’s true, but trends are far more fickle than human characters, and so are their connotations. To limit a person’s access because of their appearance is both ineffectual and short-sighted.
The truth is, I am not a Muslim woman and I did have a drink that night I wore a scarf to Cairo Jazz Club. Neither of those truths had any influence on what was ultimately an aesthetic decision. Covering my head makes me feel a little more enigmatic, a little safer. Mostly, I just like how I look in a scarf. Take it off and I am the same woman with the same morals. The same is true of any woman who does or does not wear a scarf, because a woman is never defined by her appearance. The significance of our look – or our moralities – no bouncer has the right to decide.
This article was provided to Egyptian Streets by Aswat Masriya. Check out their website: http://en.aswatmasriya.com/. This article was originally published in 2013.