MARINA, EGYPT — Once inside the imposing gate at La Femme beach, the women start peeling off the layers: first the head coverings, then the long-sleeve shirts and floor-length skirts – right down to their skimpy bikinis, instantly transforming from conservative Islamic veiled women into sexy beach babes.
For here at La Femme on Egypt's north coast, veiled women can don swimsuits, tan, swim, even twist and shimmy to blasting Arabic tunes – all away from men's prying eyes. And they love it.
"I feel free," says Nermine, an accountant in Cairo who hasn't hit the beach in her swimsuit since she began wearing hijab (Islamic dress) 10 years ago. She declined to give her full name. "You can do whatever you want here; you can swim, dance."
With more wealthy, younger Egyptian women wearing hijab, private women-only beaches like La Femme, about 150 miles north of Cairo on the Mediterranean, have become the place to be. It allows them to have fun, look chic, and remain pious in God's eyes.
After the first women-only beach, Yashmak, opened July 2004, two others, including La Femme, quickly followed. Yashmak's owner, Walid Moustafa, says he is already planning another.
To spot La Femme from Marina's main thoroughfare, just look for the beach's towering, 20-foot palm-reed wall that surrounds the beach complex.
Inside the gate, only women are allowed: women bouncers, vendors, DJs, janitors, managers – and many guests. No males are allowed, only boys six-years-old and under. And no cameras.
On the beach on this particular 100-degree-plus day is a sea of oiled, swimsuit- clad bodies, jammed like puzzle pieces along a tiny 400-foot-long sea front and wearing everything from the most matronly one-piece to the most revealing string bikini. They lounge on beach chairs, belly dance with abandon while a DJ pumps out the latest Arabic rock tunes, or sip iced cappuccino at the cafe.
Waitresses give their orders to male cooks by poking their head into a shoulder-wide box that hangs on the outside wall of a completely closed-off kitchen.
Not all the women at La Femme are veiled and Muslim. Some are Christian. Some aren't veiled. They are old and young, fat and thin. But they all agree they want more beaches like this one. "I'd like to see these beaches in Alexandria, Sharm el-Sheikh, Hurghada, wherever there are beaches in Egypt," says Mona Ahmed, a Cairo homemaker who is not veiled but says she far prefers La Femme to mixed-sex beaches.
For the women here, beaches where men also go are no fun. "Men go to the beaches to watch the swimsuits," says Dina El Mougy, an oil company administrator from Cairo who veils. "It's a kind of fashion show and very annoying. When I go to mixed beaches, I can only touch the water with my feet."
The other options, these women say, are to wear the dreaded full-body Islamic swimsuit. Or they can try to find a completely secluded beach, hit the beach earlier than anyone else, or swim in their clothes. Some say they just stop going to the beach at all.
They choose La Femme, but it comes at a hefty price: $13 on weekends and $8.50 on weekdays just to enter, an exorbitant amount by Egyptian standards. At such prices, La Femme is big business.
On the grounds is an all-pink beauty center, offering massages and hair styling. Shops selling jewelry, swimsuits, and sandals dot the complex.
To attract more visitors there are also free cooking demonstrations, yoga and belly-dancing classes, even beauty competitions where women compete for the title of Miss La Femme (best all-round), Miss Congeniality, and Miss Elegance.
Besides the women-only beaches, hip fashion stores cater to this new class of wealthier, hipper women in hijab. Makeup artists have created chic ideas for tying head scarves.
But places like La Femme are not without their critics. "I only see capitalism and consumerism, women wearing designer swimsuits and showing off their wealth," says respected Muslim intellectual Heba Raouf. "This is not Islam, hiding yourself from men while exposing yourself to women. This is a spectacle."
Raouf explains that hijab is meant to help Muslim women be modest and egalitarian.
Women at La Femme counter that they're simply having fun in a way that doesn't contradict Islam.
La Femme's owner, businessman Khaled Fouad, admits that the beach is a business venture; he says it was never meant to be a totally Islamic beach.
"They can open a new club and call it Islamic La Femme," he says. "Nobody will even go swimming. Everyone will just sit there."