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Veil-draped women defying Egyptian policy

CAIRO, Egypt—A group of Egyptian women arrived at an elegant Cairo apartment one recent evening in a flurry of black cloaks that left only their eyes uncovered. Within minutes, they peeled off their shrouds to reveal highlighted hair, snug denim skirts and trendy ballet flats.

Two economists, a teacher, a civil engineer and the other women formed a circle around Sara, a sociologist who speaks English, Arabic and German after an education in Cairo's finest private schools. The 25-year-old, who adopted the full Saudi-style veil a year ago, began her lecture with a question: "What makes you happy?"

Shopping, children and comfort food were among the responses, but the underlying theme of the speech was finding "everlasting happiness" through pleasing God.

That's the quest that led these stylish, educated and affluent women to stun their families and friends by donning the shapeless black veil known as the niqab, a symbol of repression in the West and an outward sign of Egypt's inner struggle as conservative Islamists encroach on the U.S.-friendly government's relatively secular authority.

While Saudi Arabia and several other Muslim countries encourage—and sometimes compel—women to wear the niqab, Egypt is fighting the proliferation of black-draped women who can be seen strolling along the Nile or shopping downtown on any given day. The administration of President Hosni Mubarak, whose wife is unveiled, is trying to isolate women who cover their faces. Portrayed as backward aberrations, they struggle to find work and many university campuses ban them.

The battle is as political as it is religious.

"This war between both sides is only a distraction from the main issues," said Soad Saleh, one of Egypt's highest-ranking female clerics, who received a death threat after speaking against the niqab. "There are outside forces that govern this distraction, so that we forget about Palestine and Iraq. And there are internal forces to this distraction, so that we forget about the corruption, the lack of development and miseducation."

The difficulties that fully veiled women face in carving a niche for themselves in Egypt has led to the formation of de facto support groups such as the one Sara led this month at the home of a like-minded college friend. Women brought their children, ordered carryout dinners and reinforced one another's decisions to sacrifice their former lifestyles in the search for oneness with God.

Sara, who asked that her last name not be used because of fears of government repression, had written her happiness speech in Arabic but delivered it in English as a courtesy to a veiled British student who'd befriended the group. The switch was effortless; all the Egyptian women in the room were fluent in both languages.

"We have to prepare ourselves for trials because trials will come," Sara told the group as she bounced her infant daughter on her hip. "And the more religious you are, the harder the trial."

Most Egyptian women wear at least the hijab, or head scarf, though local styles are far more colorful and inventive than in other parts of the Middle East. The scarf is paired with bright clothing and can be tied in a way that shows off a pair of dangling earrings, for example. But as the tide of Islamism washes over Egypt, a growing number of women are opting for more austere veils. At the far end of this spectrum is the niqab, an all-encompassing wrap with just a tiny opening for the eyes.

Much more common among the poor and traditional, the niqab's popularity now is reaching the highest echelons of Egypt's class hierarchy, with women such as Sara and her friends discarding their Western-instilled notions of personal freedoms and self-expression to adopt the most stringent interpretations of Islamic modesty.

The cost is steep for middle-class and wealthy women whose families don't share their views on the veil. Once accustomed to studying with male classmates, they've severed their friendships with men and have grown distant from female peers who aren't as observant.

Many say their families disparage them and often refuse to appear with them in public. Sara's father simply calls her veil "the black catastrophe," and he canceled a seaside family vacation rather than face the embarrassment of beachcombers staring at her.

All the women who were listening to Sara's lecture had lost their jobs the minute they drew the gauzy pieces of black fabric across their faces.

One woman excitedly told the group that she'd heard of a factory where veiled women are allowed to work.

"I used to work in an administration at a school. I told them I was opting for niqab, so they told me I would have to leave," Sara said. "The reason they gave me was security."

Most of the women had graduated from the prestigious American University in Cairo, whose campus is notorious for scantily clad students who push the boundaries of Egypt's conservative society. As an undergraduate, Sara grew impressed by the devotion of a tiny group of women who fluttered into class wearing black robes. Because facial veils are prohibited on campus, those women spent their school days covering their faces with white pieces of paper even as they took notes, chatted with friends or asked questions in class.

While Sara and her friends share the prevailing view that the face veil isn't a requirement of Islam, they see it as an extra sign of piety, sure to bring heavenly rewards while shielding them from the earthly leers of men. Sticking to their decision, however, means enduring taunts of "Ninja!" and a growing list of government-backed limitations on their careers and public lives.

"Thankfulness, patience and asking for forgiveness leads to everlasting happiness," Sara said, wrapping up her speech. "If you're doing it for the world, for this earth, then it won't last."

At that, the women broke for pizza and mango juice. Then they once again swathed themselves in black, covered their faces and kissed goodbye.

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(El Naggar is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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