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Let me in: Cairo’s public, yet restricted places

Hussein Helal wants to live the life of a normal 26-year-old. Born with spinal muscular atrophy, Helal is confined to a wheelchair. Regardless, every morning he goes to his job at the international technology company HP.

At night, having a good time sometimes proves difficult. However, the trouble he faces does not have to do with moving in his sophisticated wheelchair, which he has become an expert in maneuvering after nine years. Instead, Helal’s problem lies in the discriminatory policies at restaurants and pubs in Cairo, which often bar him from entry with his wheelchair.

Helal is among many citizens in Egypt who are regularly subjected to illegal door selection, imposed by owners in order to control who is allowed service at their establishments.

“When Tamarai [a well-known lounge and restaurant in Cairo] opened, I heard they had strict [door] selection,” Helal recalls. “And I’d been to the place before it was Tamarai, and I knew that I would be able to move around in it with the wheelchair.”

When Helal was on a guest list for a friend’s engagement party to be held at Tamarai, he was not only not admitted entry, but was ignored by the door manager. Helal’s friend went up to the manager to find out what was going on and later told Helal, who then was out of ear shot, that the manager said wheelchairs are not allowed in according to house policy.

Ayman Baky, owner of Tamarai, said he was not aware that such an incident occurred.

Although he denied that Tamarai has a policy against wheelchairs, he said: “We do take into consideration that the place gets too crowded and would be uncomfortable for a person in a wheelchair.”

“If reservations were made ahead of time, we take that into consideration to reserve an area for the guest so we don’t stuff him in a place where it is too crowded,” he added.

But Helal’s visit was not his first time to be rejected at the door of Tamarai. Both times he had a reservation, and was both times turned down.

The first time he went with a reservation, he was stopped at the door and given a vague explanation of, “The reservation is complete.” It was a big birthday party, and he figured maybe there was a limit on the number of guests, and he had come late. When they did not let him in, Helal turned around and left.

“I don’t like to argue my way in,” he said. “In the end it’s a nightclub; not worth my effort.”  

Baky says: “Door selection policies are never written, but my door manager has been with me for over 10 years and he simply knows who is Tamarai material and who we would not want to come in. If he can’t make the call, he usually gives me a call and I intervene.”

Wheelchairs, tank tops, traditional galabeyas worn by men, headscarves, face veils and what venues consider “bad taste” in dress are the focus of restrictive policies by some entertainment venues. Gamal Eid, the executive director for the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, says establishments by law cannot deny service to paying customers.

“They can deny certain behavior,” he says, but not based on someone’s choice of dress or appearance if it is related to religious beliefs or physical conditions. “A tie, for example, is not the same as a headscarf.”

For places that do not have memberships, door selection is left to the door manager or security guard’s judgment.

Dalia Rabie made reservations at the Heliopolis branch of the restaurant L’Aubergine to celebrate her birthday. It was not the first time she had gone there wearing a headscarf. On this day, however, she was not allowed in because of it.

“The rule, according to the bouncer, was put in place by the owner,” Rabie says. “It is straight-up discrimination because there is a social stigma attached to the headscarf.”

Rabie, a journalist, says that after the incident, someone commented on her piece about it online, “Why would you ruin someone’s night by going out with that thing on your head?”

City Stars, the mega-mall in Nasr City, has signs that state: “Women should adhere to culturally appropriate attire.” The signs are accompanied by a picture of a woman’s torso wearing a tank top, with a no entry symbol above it.

Suzanne, an Egyptian college student who preferred not to use her full name,was stopped from walking through the halls of the mall’s new extension because of her attire.

“I was asked to put on a sweater or leave,” she explains. “The security guard said, ‘Your arms show; this is against the rules.’”

City Stars also restricts groups of men from entering the mall, particularly on Thursday nights. Karim al-Dib came with a group of 20 male students last Thursday evening and was prevented from entering until he produced proof of a restaurant reservation. The security guard said that on Thursdays, the mall was only available to families.

On occasion, though, female foreigners in tank tops and groups of male tourists have been seen enjoying the shopping experience in City Stars.

Other private social and sports clubs have membership rules concerning attire. Eid says if a member signs an agreement stating these rules, then they have to accept the terms. However, they can challenge these conditions in court.

The Wadi Degla Sporting Club’s application does not allow men to wear the galabeya, “unless it is their official national dress,” says a sales representative at the club’s booth in Downtown Katameya Mall. “If the member is from Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, where it is their official dress, then they can wear it.”

About a year ago, Adham al-Ganzoury wanted to apply to the club, which is near his house. Ganzoury’s wife wears the face veil. He says he was prevented from applying then, as the sales representative told him the club abides by military club regulations, which do not allow women to wear the face veil.

The rule has since been changed, but with restrictions. According to the sales representative, a woman wearing the face veil can become a member if she has a college degree and goes through a special interview with a female board member at the club headquarters.

Whether at a private establishment requiring membership, public restaurant, pub or shopping mall, entry to venues being left to individuals’ discrepancy limits people’s basic right to recreation. Such a restriction, according to Eid, is officially against the law.

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