Neighbors / Service for the Secular

After three years of marriage, Muhammad Ali, an Egyptian citizen, took his wife out to a fancy restaurant for the first time - but she came home crying. The woman, an observant Muslim, dressed up for the occasion in a brand new dress, covered her head with her hijab and accompanied her husband. However at the entrance to the restaurant, on the banks of the Nile, the head waiter told her she could not enter. He explained that the restaurant served alcoholic beverages and so it was not fitting for a religious woman like her to be seated there.

The Saudi Arabian Web site, Elaph - the most popular online news portal in the Arab world - conducted an investigative report into the issue. Quotes from restaurant and nightclub owners in Egypt made it clear that they were not prepared to host women wearing head coverings because they might not feel comfortable and, more importantly, their presence might spoil the enjoyment of other guests who had come to dance or drink wine.

"Egypt is becoming a much more religious country," the report said, "and about 90 percent of the women there wear a hijab." It is doubtful whether this information is based on fact, but the struggle over the hijab is taking a much more central role in the public discourse in Egypt and other Arab countries.

Until now, the struggle has been over the niqab, a veil covering the hair and face that leaves only the eyes visible. The Egyptian government forbids women wearing a niqab to drive and until last week, also forbid female students whose faces were veiled from taking examinations. However the chief administrative court ruled that a woman's right to wear a niqab was anchored in the constitution, and it rejected the government's instruction.

Prior to that, the head of Al-Azhar University, Sheikh Sayyid Tantawi, had ordered that female students wearing a niqab be instructed to leave the lecture halls of all institutions affiliated with the university. Now it appears that wearing a hijab is also controversial - not in public institutions in Egypt, but certainly in recreational and entertainment facilities.

Religious women told a reporter from Elaph that they were viewed "unfavorably" at swimming pools and even in the lobbies of Egyptian resort hotels. They said that in some cases they had been prevented from entering swimming pools wearing a burqini swimsuit.

The burqini is an interesting story in itself - it's a swimsuit that covers the entire body except for the hands and feet. It is colorful and of course includes a head covering, and is made from the same material as regular bathing suits. Aheda Zanetti, a Lebanese-born designer who lives in Australia, decided in 2003 to create a swimsuit that would fit her needs as a religious woman who loves the sea. This article of clothing, which combines the idea of a burka and a bikini, quickly became a hit - raking in more than $5 million a year. Last year, Zanetti announced she was designing a modest swimsuit for men so that women visiting the sea or a swimming pool will not be embarrassed.

This modest solution, however, is apparently unacceptable to the resort managers. They believe it might spoil the atmosphere for secular tourists who do not wish to be hampered by the restrictions of religion.

As the debate between the religious and the secular rages, the government in Cairo is keeping out of it, but still examining it closely. After losing in court over the niqab question, it does not plan to act once again in the legal sphere - but it also is not preventing restaurants and entertainment spots from barring the entry of women wearing hijabs. The Egyptian government's official struggle is focused on the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which plans to fight back by supporting female candidates running for parliament in this year's elections.

Armenians are mad at Obama

Why did most of the Armenian residents of Massachusetts vote for Scott Brown the Republican, rather than the Democrat, Martha Coakley, who supports recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide? The answer is U.S. President Barack Obama. The Armenians in the United States, believed to number about one million, are upset the president did not keep the promise he made before the elections - to recognize the massacre of the Armenians by the Turks as genocide - and that he bought the compromise proposed by Turkey (and accepted by Armenia), according to which a committee composed of historians from both sides would be appointed to investigate the massacre.

It is true that the number of voters of Armenian extraction in Massachusetts is small and could not by itself have caused a scathing loss, but the hullabaloo caused by the Armenian National Council, the umbrella organization of the Armenians in the United States, at least indicates the anger felt by a community which worked diligently on Obama's behalf.

Meanwhile, the application of the Turkish-Armenian agreement signed last October has been stalled. Armenia is accusing Turkey of an attempt to avoid ratifying it, while Turkey is accusing Armenia of presenting new conditions. The Armenian constitutional court has indeed approved the legality of the agreement, but has made it conditional on the wording of the Armenian declaration of independence.

This is where the catch lies. The declaration of independence states that the Republic of Armenia will work toward achieving international recognition of the Armenian genocide. Turkey considers this stipulation an attempt to thwart the spirit and aims of the agreement, and is therefore not prepared to ratify it. The expectation now is that the United States and France, the patrons of the agreement, will come up with a new compromise - but the anger toward Obama might spell another failure for him in resolving an international dispute.