Cairo Stories: The veil is catching on, but the wine still flows

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The Independent Online

Unlike their sisters in the Gulf, Cairo's middle-class women have never taken to the veil. So it is strange to see young people all over the city wearing the hijab headscarf, which their mothers would not be seen dead in. The veil has become a fashion statement in Cairo. It means that, while wearing Western clothes, young women and girls can tell the world they do not necessarily subscribe to Western values.

Unlike their sisters in the Gulf, Cairo's middle-class women have never taken to the veil. So it is strange to see young people all over the city wearing the hijab headscarf, which their mothers would not be seen dead in. The veil has become a fashion statement in Cairo. It means that, while wearing Western clothes, young women and girls can tell the world they do not necessarily subscribe to Western values.

Never mind issues of ideology and oppressed womanhood: these women look terrific in jeans, top and matching scarf. Take 22-year old Chama, a vision in pink, with her pink headscarf, sparkly pink T-shirt with "I love New York" on the front, and pink lipstick.

But Heba, 17, a student, will not wear the veil. Although most of her friends have adopted the style, she feels more comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt. "If you wear the veil, it brings religious duties," she says.

People point out that there is one big advantage to wearing the hijab: you can save money because you don't need to go to the hairdresser so often.

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The American University in Cairo has a proud heritage: it was the original home of Cairo University when it was founded, in 1908, and boasts Nasser's daughter and Hosni Mubarak's wife among its graduates. But human rights organisations say intimidation and harassment are undermining academic freedom. The other day, I saw for myself.

The university lies a stone's throw from the busy Tahrir Square, in the city centre. When I dropped in to see a teacher at the university, I was stopped at the door by the security services, who checked my identity. Once inside, instead of heading to the professor's office, I wandered into the quadrangle and began chatting with one of the students. As soon as we sat down in the shade, however, a security guard in a blue uniform approached and began berating her. End of conversation.

I then made my way to the professor's office under the stern gaze of the security officer, who lurked in the corridor to make sure that I did not have any other inappropriate conversations on my way out. So much for the free exchange of ideas.

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What could be more pleasant in this season of balmy evenings, before the thermometer hits 40C, than finding a spot where you can dine fanned by the Nile breezes and watching the feluccas drift past?

And don't think that, just because they are Muslims, Cairenes don't drink: Egyptian wine from Alexandria is now all the rage at Cairo dinner parties, though the jury is definitely out as to the quality. The best-known cabernet sauvignon, Chateau Grand Marquis, will set you back £15 at a posh restaurant.

But dinner is still not complete without a shisha, the hookah-style water pipe that hubbles and bubbles as it is passed around the table. My friends who smoke prefer the tobacco to be flavoured with apple, but you can have strawberry, peach, orange or almost any other taste you fancy. The only reminder of the grim reality of Cairo life is the plastic mouthpiece, which you're recommended to use because of the risk of catching hepatitis.

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