Wednesday, October 26, 2005

MARINA, Egypt — Iman Moustafa loves the sea, but she always knew her bikini didn’t conform with the rules of Islam, so each time she took a dip she would cover up quickly and pray on the beach. The guilt spoiled the fun.

“I felt as if I were fooling God,” said Miss Moustafa, 25.

The solution? La Femme.

La Femme is one of three women-only beaches at this elite Mediterranean resort, offering beachgoers a priceless commodity: guiltless fun. Here the veiled, conservative and shy can strip down to skimpy bikinis safe from intruding male eyes.

The beaches, about 60 miles west of Alexandria, are part of a growing business that caters to the new class of religious Egyptians who are hip, rich and young. These secluded strips of sand are an attempt to reconcile liberal and conservative, worldly and heavenly, fun and piety.

At ordinary beaches, where the sexes mix and any swimwear is allowed, religious women face a challenge. They must get up early to find a secluded spot. Some take to the waves fully clothed or wearing unrevealing Islamic swimsuits. Miss Moustafa all but gave up the beach when she donned the veil four years ago.

Then women-only beaches appeared.

At La Femme on a recent late-summer day, women let down their hair and layers of clothes to reveal swimsuits or tight shorts, rubbed on tanning oil and lay on the soft sand. Some abandoned themselves to the blaring Arabic pop music, swaying to the rhythmic beats. Miss Moustafa removed her kerchief and traded her baggy skirt and top for a flower-adorned bikini.

The beach is screened by reeds, with female gatekeepers to keep out men and cameras.

A visit to La Femme costs 50 Egyptian pounds (about $9), or $60 for a summer membership. Those hefty sums in low-wage Egypt are worth it, many women said.

“I’m having fun and am not sinning,” said a 27-year-old accountant who identified herself as Heba. Seven years ago, she became “moltazema,” meaning she now wears only long clothes that are not too fitting.

“I love the sea very much, but I wasn’t able to swim because I know it is [religiously forbidden] to expose your body and have the guys check it out,” she said, an English-language book perched on her bare legs and a ring adorning a toe.

“Those who came up with the idea of this beach know what the country needs,” she said. La Femme was set up by private entrepreneurs.

Yasmeen Dinana, 16, said she started veiling herself about two years ago, partly because of a sermon she heard from Amr Khaled, a young evangelical-style preacher who draws the young and rich to Islam.

Imam Khaled said the prophet Muhammad would be upset by unveiled women, she said. “I felt that the prophet has suffered a lot for us and that God has given us so many things, so why not wear the veil?”

Preachers such as Imam Khaled speak the language of young people and wear smart suits rather than robes and turbans as they guide the new generation of Egypt’s 77 million people toward Islam and away from what is perceived as Western decadence and materialism.

The Islamic revival has spawned chic fashion stores catering specifically to veiled women. Makeup artists advertise new trends in tying kerchiefs. Video clips of religious songs feature handsome male models.

Marina embodies many of Egypt’s contrasts. On its streets, scantly clad women walk next to others swathed in black. On some of its beaches, men and women mingle, drink alcohol and publicly display affection. La Femme’s own gatekeepers wear bikinis or shorts.

Basma Magdy, 21, a student at the American University in Cairo, doesn’t wear a veil but feels more comfortable at La Femme. “Here I am sitting at ease, knowing that I’m not doing anything wrong,” she said.

Miss Moustafa says her veil makes her feel like “a precious and covered pearl.”

It took her awhile to realize it. “I used to tell God, ‘I know I have to get veiled, but I’m still young and I want to wear a strapless gown on my wedding day and I want to wear bikinis,” she said. “Now I would never take off the veil, even if you give me one million dollars.”

Her bikini, she says, is strictly for use at La Femme.

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