The extraordinary gentlewomen's club
The women-only trend has taken the country by storm: Salonaz Sami and Injy El-Naggar explore the latest perks of their gender
Dedicated establishments seem to be the fashion. What's interesting is the women-only concept. Scores of venues are excluding men, partly -- it would seem -- out of rising demand for cafés, restaurants and hangouts, which despite the exponential proliferation of such places is still apparently not met, and women having trouble finding a free table, especially during Ramadan. Sexual harassment and the reported tendency of some waiters to take on the role of matchmakers for the benefit of their male customers make it even more difficult for women, while the ever rising tide of conservatism prevents them from enjoying the beach, for example. In July 2004, the opening of the first women-only beach on the North Coast -- Yashmak, named after the Turkish face veil -- was therefore an occasion to celebrate; and when La Femme, another such venue, opened, it too made for lucrative business. Within the confines of these places, not only the patrons but the personnel -- security, DJs, vendors -- are all female, so women who wear the headscarf could enjoy themselves freely. Critics took issue with the beaches on various grounds, claiming the lurid dancing competitions, for example, were the perfect example of warped sexual release; society is oppressed enough, how might segregation help? One religious standpoint holds that, like men, women should actually be covered from belly to knee even in front of each other to protect their aawra (a Muslim term for modesty). Still, the idea caught on to an amazing degree.
Earlier this year the opening of a women- only café in Madinet Nasr gave rise to greater debate. By now an almost legendary place shrouded in mystery -- a conspicuous sign on top of the entrance reads "Women-only café: men not allowed" -- the venue, according to the doorman of a building next door, "is a place where women in a strange cult hold meetings to perform their rituals", but to its owner, Marwa Ismail, 42, "it's just a convenient private space where women can be at ease together". Ismail had suffered enough from harassment -- while walking, driving, shopping, having a coffee in public -- when she conceived of the possibility of fun away from "men's prying eyes"; the café also features a monthly "open day" for the sale of clothes, accessories and antiques, helping customers "make a little profit while they relax" at no extra charge. Stepping inside, a group of women are removing their hijab and breathing a sigh of relief. (Outside, one imagines, the rabid males undeterred by Wahhabi modesty are still foaming at the mouth, their eyes scanning the streets for prey). "I hadn't been to a café since I took the veil six years ago," Nadia Makram, one of that group, explains. "Over here, you can do whatever -- play, laugh -- without worrying about men on the horizon." But many of the customers do not wear hijab ; some are Christians who have the same complaints; all agree they want more sexually obsessed beast-free, God-looks-with-benevolent-eyes- on-our-outrageously-sexy-conduct possibilities. A reasonable desire.
Fatma El-Muallem, who does not wear hijab, says she would like to see women-only cafés downtown, in Zamalek and Heliopolis: "maybe one day there will be cinemas, malls and clubs for women only." (Is there an undertone of lesbian separatism?) Rasha Suleiman, 20, agrees: "my friends and I seldom go out now and it's because of harassment from the opposite sex." (How many rape incidents did Rasha and her friends suffer?) "I want to be able to watch football and cheer as loud as I like to," (which is presumably impossible in the presence of hordes of the sexually obsessed beasts). Quite. Nihal Mohsen, another woman without hijab and the mother of two grown children, likes being free of "the male presence" which she says always involves comments or stares; she likes it so much she comes to the café almost every day. (To hear her talking, one wonders how she ever managed to have children, but still.) Ismail is keen on pointing out that the café is ultimately a business venture, without an Islamically oriented agenda; a smoke-free space, it has provisions for children (boys up to the age of 10 are allowed in -- surely a compromise of principles?) and Internet service as well as a library. To help her organise social and cultural events, the idea being to develop a female club, Ismail has been putting together a database of customers.
N ot so long ago in London, men's gyms used to bear the sign: "Men's club. Dogs and women not allowed." A peculiar combination of atavistic religiosity -- imported from Saudi Arabia, and muddled feminism has made for the opposite of this in present-day Cairo, with women-only gyms -- like women-only beaches and women-only cafés: products of a society that will neither update its understanding of Islam nor give up the consumerist urge -- catering mostly to women who choose to conceal their bodies in public, women who are bothered by unsolicited male attentions (it doesn't seem to occur to anyone that, in the absence of both money with which to marry and legitimate privacy in which to consummate desire, such attentions will remain inevitable) and women who, having not transcended the incredibly narrow confines of the predominant, Wahhabi-based, middle-class understanding of Islam, are nonetheless still obsessed with their bodies as objects of desire, eager to spend their parents' money on beautifying themselves and keen on such things as dieting, body toning, even make- up. Well, now they can tone to their heart's content, playing out American beauty fantasies in a strictly "Islamic" context: the women-only gym.
According to Whitney Ayerle, owner of one such gym in Mohandessin, "the most important thing in our gym is the prevailing atmosphere where female exercisers support and encourage each other. Our main goal is to make a lady comfortable about her body, what she is doing, and to improve her confidence in herself. It is not just about strengthening your body but it is also your mind." Sally Salama, patron of another such establishment in Maadi, says the laughter, conversation and sense of support she felt while working out is different from any other gym she has been to. Though the majority of females who opt for such gyms wear hijab, the unveiled Salama did enjoy going there: "I found my lost privacy." Ayerle explains that a typical workout routine is 30 minutes long, includes aerobics and strength training using hydraulic machines designed specially for women. "We also have cardiovascular equipment adjusted to women's abilities." The circuit is designed to alternate upper and lower body parts to allow each part of the body to recover before resuming training. The somewhat exclusive subscription fee of LE900 per month has kept all but the upper classes from joining, though already middle-class women who can afford it are following suit.
Why should women feel uncomfortable working out alongside men, however? "I don't have a problem with men," one women-only gym-goer explains. "I just prefer my gym because I feel I can focus on working out while not being stared at or checked out. I want to be able to feel free with my body while training." Samah Abdel-Rehim, a housewife with two children who goes to a women-only gym in Mohandessin, stresses the supportive atmosphere and dedicated workout routines: "it's not as friendly or private in other places. Besides, I want to reshape my body because I want to be sexy, but it's not just about appealing to my husband, it's about having self- confidence regardless." It's all about privacy, says Nahla Abdallah Imam, a customs and traditions scholar at the Academy of Arts; and insofar as it is, segregation remains a healthy development. If the number of such establishments were to increase, however, it would be a worrying sign, "because this society has never preferred segregation as such," comments Imam.