The two friends were enjoying the pool and the warm Egyptian sunshine at a Red Sea resort when the manager suddenly demanded that one of the women get out of the water.
Why? Because she was wearing a burkini, or as it is called in the Arab world, “Islamic swimwear.”
Egypt’s main state newspaper, al-Ahram, which posted a video of the incident, reported that the manager yelled at the woman: “How can you swim in the pool with this thing on? Go swim with it anywhere else.” The video was taken by a friend of the woman last month.
The situation escalated further when the manager asked a group of male employees to jump into the pool in their underwear to make the women feel uncomfortable and to mock burkinis. Then he ordered workers to pour chlorine into the water and threatened to sterilize the pool with nitric acid.
The incident highlighted the divisions in Egyptian society regarding the hijab – or headscarf – and women’s clothing in general. While most women are veiled in this Muslim-majority country of 82 million people, attitudes vary widely and often depend on age and economic background.
A furor erupted on Egyptian social media, including on the popular Facebook page “Hijab racism,” where women share stories about being persecuted or harassed for wearing the burkini or even the hijab.
“People look at you as if you are from a different planet when you are in the burkini,” said Pakinam Nasser, 29, one of the founders of the page. “I don’t think people realize that it’s actually a big problem in Egypt, bigger even because I never feel uncomfortable swimming in my burkini abroad.”
Yara Bassiouni, 29, a founder of another popular page, “Respect my veil,” shared similar sentiments: “It was actually more shocking to me when the burkini incident happened in France, where I thought differences were respected more. I have always felt more comfortable swimming in my burkini in Western countries.”
Both women said they have been told many times to leave pools or beaches because of their swimwear.
Nasser conceded that it was a problem encountered mostly by middle- and upper-class women who can afford to frequent Egypt’s private beaches and pools, where a more conservative dress code is considered regressive.
“Veiled women are considered second-class citizens,” she said.
Nada Kabil, a journalist, recently wrote in an article on the website Scoop Empire: “When did the veil turn into an issue of class rather than an issue of religion? Why are we being looked upon as not presentable enough or not open-minded enough?”
Lebanese journalist Diana Moukalled echoed these thoughts in a recent op-ed titled “Burkini phobia includes us too” in the Arabic-language international newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.
“What is shocking are divisions among Arabs and Muslims regarding the case. Some were thrilled at the opportunity to further demonize the West, while others displayed more secularism than the French decrees! Absurdly, many Arabs said the woman on the beach in Nice should have gone home. Some even asked why she went to the beach to begin with!”
On the other end of the controversy, many conservative clerics in the region have condemned the swimwear as being “un-Islamic.”
Prominent Egyptian cleric Ahmed Karima, a scholar at al-Azhar University in Cairo, the global center of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, said in a telephone interview on the popular Egyptian talk show “Infrad” that “the burkini is the same as a bikini.”
“The swimsuit becomes see-through when it is wet and you can see everything – this is not Islamic,” he said.