by Roula Khalaf
posted November 2, 2012 by Financial Times
Behind the scenes and on the street women are now stepping out of the shadows and emerging as a vital political force in Egypt
We meet in her parents’ marble-floored living room in Dreamland, a compound on the outskirts of Cairo where houses are encircled by manicured lawns and golf courses. It is an upper-middle-class haven that feels a world apart from the dust and chaos of the capital. Asem looks younger than her years and she dresses more fashionably than other Brotherhood women, her body wrapped in a long checkered skirt and a fitted black jacket over a buttoned white shirt, her headscarf shorter than a typical sister’s. Like other Muslim sisters, however, she is coming out, openly sharing the contribution of women in the more than 80-year history of the Brotherhood. It is a tale that not only sheds light on the inner workings of a secretive community but also helps explain its political potency.
For Asem, the women’s impact in the movement is as important as that of men. “Women do most of the work on the ground, especially in campaigns. They are larger in numbers, and in influence in campaigns, they can be more convincing,” says Asem, relating how during the race for the presidency earlier this year, she challenged herself and her Islamist female friends to mobilise 100 voters each – and succeeded. “Some women might have convinced 300 people … We had very little time. But that’s what helped the [Mohamed Morsi, Brotherhood candidate] victory.”
Islamism and women’s empowerment do not usually go hand in hand, and for good reason. Islamist organisations, which mix religion and politics and aspire to an idealistic state that existed in the days of the Prophet Mohammed, preach that the woman’s place is in the home, her role confined to good wife and mother. Islamist scholars (who have historically been male) can point to verses in the Koran and sayings of the prophet to justify discrimination against women, including the fact that they are not suited for wilaya al-ozma (the great ruler role).
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The Muslim sisterhood was set up as a chapter of the Ikhwan, as the Brotherhood is known in Arabic, a few years after the founding of the movement in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna. A pious schoolteacher who believed that adhering to Islam in every aspect of life was the path to defeating colonialism and overcoming social injustice, he created what would become the world’s most important Islamic movement. Though the Brotherhood once had a military wing (one of its later ideologues, Sayyid Qutb, inspired jihadi ideology), it evolved into a movement that rejects violence and argues – some say unconvincingly – that democracy can be compatible with its ideal of an Islamic state.
“The goal of each [sister] is to learn about Islam because it can change her life and improve it and then share and clarify that to people,” says Oumayma Kamel, the most senior woman in the Ikhwan, and an adviser to the president. “So you learn the texts and you practise them and spread them and this takes time and training, it’s very applied.”
Being part of the Ikhwan is an all-encompassing project – “it is who you are, how you are brought up and how you identify with others,” as Asem puts it. The building block of the organisation is the usra. The word means family in Arabic but in this context it refers to a group of Brotherhood members of similar ages, often from the same neighbourhood, who form a unit that meets every week to study religious texts, and organises outings and charitable activities on a regular basis. The Brotherhood also runs religious and social programmes for every age, starting with toddlers and moving on to teenagers, with the girls being prepared for their roles as wives and mothers. For adults too, members of an usra help each other, with jobs or financial support.
If your child is misbehaving or your marriage is in trouble, the Brotherhood can come to the rescue. The political party, which is now taking on some of the movement’s mainstream activities, also offers Irshad Osari, or family guidance. I attended a session in which women were being trained as family (and marriage) counsellors to be stationed in FJP offices across the country. The instructor prods the women to express their feelings – one rambles on about how she stares at the Nile and feels the water washing away her troubles and another tells of how she knew from an early age that she had the gift of solving other people’s problems. The instructor is trying to focus women on the fact that they have abilities and masses of energy that should be channelled for the benefit of others. “What’s important is not to rest but to feel satisfied,” Ghada Hashad, the organiser of the meeting, tells them. “You are all special because you have so much energy.”
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In its early days, the sisterhood was made up of the wives and female relatives of members. It acted as a quiet addition to the Ikhwan until repression took the men away, leaving the women to carry the flame. Although scholars of the Brotherhood have written about several women leaders, the one that stands out is Zaynab al-Ghazali. She was the strong-minded, charismatic activist who was a central figure after the assassination of al-Banna in 1949, when she held secret meetings to reorganise the movement and helped the families of those arrested. She too would be detained in 1965 and tortured. Ghazali documented her experience in the jails of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the late Egyptian president who had turned ferociously against the Brotherhood, in her book Return of the Pharaoh.
Fatma al-Zomor, the hyperactive assistant head of the teachers union, is known for her campaigning skills. She came from a modest family consisting mostly of loyalists to the Mubarak regime but joined the Brotherhood at 17, after benefiting from the free after-school lessons they provided in her village (the tutoring ranged from mathematics to the Koran). “I read the letters of Hassan al-Banna and other books and I believed in their principles,” she says. She would later run a Brotherhood-backed charity that distributed food in poor neighbourhoods and start two charities on her own, sending monthly stipends to 150 families. The charities were shut down when the authorities discovered who was behind them. She now teaches Arabic and Islamic studies and only told her students she was from the Muslim Brotherhood after the revolution. So she had numerous people to call on when the movement decided to put up Mohamed Morsi for president. “We can work under any pressure,” she says.
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The limelight, however, is not always favourable for the Muslim sisters. As the cause of women emerges as the main battleground between liberals and Islamists in new democracies in the Middle East, some of the most prominent sisters are seen as an integral part of a sinister Brotherhood plot to Islamise the state and undermine women’s rights. At a time when liberals are seeking to limit the encroachment of Islamic law on a new constitution, a stream of accusations have depicted the Muslim sisters as supporters of lifting the ban on genital mutilation and of lowering the marriage age for girls from the current 18.
The sisters insist that neither they nor the party intend to change the marriage age or the anti-genital mutilation laws, whatever the constitution says. But some acknowledge that ambiguous statements from Brotherhood officials, both men and women, have muddied the debate and left the movement vulnerable to liberals’ accusations.
The sisters argue that respect for leadership decisions is one of the greatest assets of their movement. “The Muslim Brotherhood’s biggest strength is that they have very dedicated young people ready to implement the democratic decisions even though they might not agree with some of them. That’s why we win elections,” says Asem.
Oumayma Kamel, the senior sister who sits on the panel drafting the constitution and who has been at the receiving end of much criticism, says that the liberals are zeroing in on issues that are simply not priorities. What about women’s education and the fight against illiteracy, she asks, which is still rampant in rural Egypt? What about the struggle against poverty in a country where nearly half the population is impoverished? “Is it equality or equity? That’s the issue. What the liberals care about is women’s freedom. But women’s condition won’t improve without education,” she tells me. “Men and women have the same rights and responsibilities but I know that there are differences between men and women, it’s biological. Being a mother is a woman’s most important job, it’s fundamental, and so we speak of the protection of motherhood and child and the liberals don’t like it.”
In reality, however, some sisters admit that the Brotherhood has never given much thought to women’s rights. A patriarchal organisation, it has also left issues that are important to women to be decided by the men. Nor has there been much pressure for a rethinking of positions because Egyptian society is, in any case, largely conservative. A woman need not be in the Brotherhood to be warned by her parents against confrontation at home and told to seek the counsel of her husband.
Within the sisterhood, however, you can glean a diversity of views, with some of the younger sisters seemingly more attuned to women’s rights, and more empowered by last year’s revolution. With time and greater political participation perhaps their voices will be better heard. “The waters are stirring and we have started to think about what we know about women’s rights,” says Nermeen Hassan, the medical professor. She teaches a course to other sisters about preparing for marriage. In the past, the course instructed the girls to look nice and not pester their husbands. “Now there is no longer language that says you should be obedient but more emphasis on complementing each other and that there should be no power struggle between men and women,” she explains. “We also talk about housework and say that sharia does not oblige a woman to do it, that men and women should discuss it and if no agreement is reached, then the man must provide a servant.” Not quite a revolution yet – nor would such recommendations benefit poorer families – but, as Hassan says, it is all part of a “natural” evolution in the Brotherhood. One, however, that is not fast enough or radical enough for non-Islamists.