In Cairo, check your hijab at the door

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By Dalia Rabie

CAIRO: A few days ago I was not allowed to join my own birthday dinner. According to the man guarding L’Aubergine’s door, there were strict orders from the restaurant’s owner not to let in girls who wear the hijab.

Fully aware of his employer’s hypocrisy, the bouncer cringed as he asked me if I had “notified” anyone that I was veiled when I made the reservations, like they needed a heads up to set up a table for me next to the kitchen.

I had been to this Heliopolis branch before with no problems, so no, I hadn’t alerted the authorities that my hijab and I wished to eat dinner, nor was I informed of their discriminatory policy over the phone.

Setting aside the double standards, denying paying customers entry into restaurants just because they cover their hair, a policy practiced by several venues in Egypt, is also against the law.

According to prominent human rights lawyer Gamal Eid, not allowing veiled girls in certain restaurants or pubs is discriminatory and illegal. However, if confronted, restaurant owners are likely to resort to legal justifications for their decision.

Legally, restaurants have the right to turn away or kick out customers if they refuse to pay the bill, if they are creating a lot of havoc for example, or if, ironically in some cases, they are attempting to enter with their own alcoholic beverages, Eid said.

He explained that if restaurant owners are dragged into a legal battle they are unlikely to admit that they refused service to a customer because she wears the hijab and will instead use one of the aforementioned justifications.

But being turned away from a venue is not as mortifying as it sounds. The stark bigotry and absurdity behind such policies leave very little room for embarrassment.

And trust me, I’ve heard all the arguments, chief of which is that said place serves alcohol.

Some claim that the mere sight of a veiled girl at the next table may cause customers who drink alcohol to feel uncomfortable. As if by choosing to cover my hair I have proclaimed myself “the righteous one” divinely preordained to cast the first stone.

Here’s an inside scoop: we don’t care.

A lecture about freedom of choice here would be redundant. Needless to say, just as other clients enjoy the freedom to drink, I too should be paid the same courtesy and be able to enter whichever restaurant I choose. We should be able to make our own choices without such shameful policies restricting our freedom.

Another argument — a personal favorite — as told to me by the bouncer at the door, is that girls like me are turned away out of “respect for the veil.” L’Aubergine, as the bastion of moral conduct, decided on my behalf that I should not be exposed to the debauched world of dining.

No matter how you try to justify it, there is no reason a paying customer should be denied entry. Such rules are discriminatory, period. These restaurants are one step short of posting a “no veiled girls allowed” sign, reminiscent of racist practices which triggered an entire civil rights movement across the Atlantic.

Let’s call a spade a spade; these high-end venues’ rule against the hijab is merely aimed at filtering their patrons. Shallow and pretentious as they are, the image they want to boast does not include girls who cover their hair.

Exhibit A: One of said venues stipulates that for every group of 10 people, one veiled girl is allowed, on condition that she ties her hijab to the back, “Spanish style.”

Although Exhibit B, a standard restaurant by the Nile, is kind enough to allow veiled girls in, they do dictate that said girls do not wear abayas, long flowing dresses.

Despite it being brought to my attention several times, the irony of being banned from a place because of my veil shortly after an Islamist-dominated parliament was elected was unfortunately lost on me.

It is difficult to find humor in the hypocrisy of a society whose scorn is impossible to escape. A society where 80 percent of women are pigeonholed for covering their hair, and the remaining 20 percent are shunned because they don’t. A society that is too consumed with bikinis and hijabs that it is forgetting to rebuild itself.

We will never move forward as long as such backward social attitudes are in place. Tolerance and acceptance are the kinds of principles we need to propagate during these fragile times.

As I drove off, I saw two other veiled girls trying to negotiate their way into L’Aubergine. I wish I had time to tell them not to bother; the chicken is dry.

Dalia Rabie is the Features Editor of Daily News Egypt.


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