Islamic hymns fade out, giving way to Arabic pop music as women remove their veils to reveal bikinis or one-piece swimsuits at a religiously correct beach for women only in Egypt.
Welcome to “La Femme,” French for “The Woman,” in the posh resort of Marina, where women can lounge on sunbeds, tan, join in a daily belly-dance contest or breastfeed their babies shielded by barriers of palm tree branches from the prying eyes of men.
The branches even stretch into the Mediterranean sea to give maximum shelter to the women, who have faced the constraints of growing conservatism in this mostly Muslim country.
“Sometimes I turn around and look behind to make sure there are no men. And, thank God, there aren’t any,” said Safa, a Cairo resident in her 60s, who enjoys the privacy of La Femme beach club.
“It is haram [forbidden in Islam] to strut around in front of men in a swimsuit,” she said, as she basked in the sun. “It is an excellent idea to have a beach reserved for women only.”
Most of the women at the beach are upper-class like Safa, who can afford to dish out US$14 on weekdays and US$16 on the weekend for the privilege of entering the gated beach club to preserve their modesty.
A growing number of Egyptian women from all walks of life have opted for strict Muslim guidelines such as wearing scarves to cover their heads and conservative clothes with high necklines and long sleeves.
Marwa is among those who have chosen to abide by the Islamic dress code.
“Being a veiled woman I have no other option but to go to a women only beach,” she said as she slips a short yellow beach dress over her swimsuit.
A few seats away Sara, 20, is relaxing in a bikini that she donned after removing her Muslim scarf.
“It is wonderful here. We don’t have to put up with the prying eyes of men. But on the mixed beaches it is unbearable,” Sara said.
At mixed beaches where women and men are allowed, many girls shield themselves by wearing so-called Shariah swimsuits that cover them from the neck down to the ankles and look more live diving suits.
“The Shariah swimsuits are not practical,” said Marwa, who says she is as happy as a “fish in water” at La Femme, where she feels she can be herself.
The only moment of concern for Marwa is when young men riding jet skis try to inch their way closer to the coast to sneak a view of the women.
To ensure the women’s “sanctity,” guards at the entrance to the club search all the beach bags to keep out any cameras that could be used to take pictures of bikini-clad bathers that could end up on the Internet.
La Femme is not the sole women-only beach to make a brisk business in Egypt. The first of its kind, Yachmak, opened in 2004.
At the time, its founder Walid Mustafa told reporters: “At the end of the day we belong to a conservative society. We cannot forget that.”
“We need to respond to the needs of the community,” he said.
In the view of sociologist Dalal al-Bizri, Egypt is gripped by “a sort of religious hysteria.”
Beaches like La Femme “reflect the general mood in the country,” where some 80 percent of women today wear the veil, she said.
Egypt was once was one of the most liberal Arab countries and the first to give women the franchise in 1956.
But after an increase in religious conservatism in recent decades — the key opposition group is now the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood that promotes Shariah — bare-headed women have become a small minority and many of them are Coptic Christians, who account for only a slice of the country’s 80 million people.
Officially, however, wearing the head veil is not required, as it is in strictly conservative Muslim nations such as Saudi Arabia or Iran.
Many women themselves say they seek out segregated beaches like La Femme out of religious considerations, but they have their critics.
A security guard posted a few yards outside the beach club argued that such places catering to the whims of women were just another form of “decadence.”
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