After the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, women have been empowered by the Muslim Brotherhood to join their ranks and speak their voice. But without gender equality, is that voice a mere whisper?
By Jess Smith—
Sisters in the Brotherhood. It sounds like an oxymoron, but for Muslim women involved in the Islamic organization, it is everything.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 as a religious, political and social movement, and it has served as one of the most influential organizations in the world with divisions all over West Asia and Africa. The Brotherhood has been represented by the faces of men and universally regarded as a boys’ club, but women have been silently participating since 1932.
“Muslim Brotherhood women weren’t seen as women before the revolution because they were afraid of politically participating and being arrested,” said Hager El Saway, a female member of the Muslim Brotherhood, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Women—especially very conservative women—didn’t go out.”
Before the people rebelled against Mubarak in 2011, women had to privately show their support for the Brotherhood with secret meetings and social events. They couldn’t rally in public with their fellow Brothers for fear of being arrested or terrorized. “The Brothers were regularly jailed and the wives had to take care of children,” said Dina Zakkaria, another Sister who spoke with Worldcrunch. “Each week, we organized the Osra [which were] secret meetings where we would discuss religion, family and politics. When the appointments were arranged by phone, we simply said: let’s have tea next Monday.”
The Sisters were willing to take a backseat for the sake of progress and thus able to skirt around the law. But after the revolution, the Brotherhood deemed it safe for women to reveal themselves and join their male counterparts in public demonstrations and expand the female ranks of the organization. “Today, women account for more than 21% of the members,” said Ghada Hashad, a fellow Sister. “This number is higher than any of the liberal parties!”
Last June, Mohamed Morsi, member of the Brotherhood, was elected as Egyptian President. Since then, the female branch of the organization has had an active role in politics, charities and education. But is it enough? “Some say the Brotherhood wants to impose the veil on all Egyptian women, but this is not true,” said Zakkaria in defense of her beliefs.
Morsi recently drafted a new constitution for the people of Egypt that has been met with hostility in a time of political upheaval. Activists criticized the draft, pointing to issues that included the repeated referral to women as “caregivers,” as well as the removal of a clause setting a minimum age for women to get married.
“I was astonished by the ambiguities in the text, especially concerning education and children’s rights,” said Ehsan Yahia, an Islamic feminist. “To me, religion is a guarantee of justice and honesty. But the Muslim Brotherhood exploits it for political purposes. As for women’s rights, we are forbidden from ever holding the position of guide of the Brotherhood, and can’t even be part of the counselor office!”
“A woman must be active as long as her involvement does not harm the family,” said Hashad, who whole-heartedly embraced the conservative elements of Morsi’s constitution. “The family is the cornerstone of a society. If it fails, the country fails.” Morsi was removed from power, like his predecessor, on July 3. Following a massacre of 42 peaceful pro-Morsi protestors outside a Republican Guard club, Sisters worry that their time in the spotlight may be dissolving back into the shadows. Some refuse to give up on their public efforts until Morsi is restored to power.
“I have a national duty as a woman, as an Egyptian, and as a Muslim to defend my rights and my role as a Muslim Brotherhood member,” said El Saway. “I stand for truth.” But many Muslim women find that Morsi’s efforts to achieve women’s rights are futile and do not establish the kind of equality they are seeking. The granted activism is pure propaganda and does nothing to better the lives of women.
“I have always been rebellious and I have always campaigned for greater women’s participation,” said former Brotherhood member Sara Mohammed. “But the Brotherhood told me that under Mubarak it was too risky and I could eventually be arrested. The problem is that after the revolution, nothing changed. The “Sisters” are more visible in public situations, but otherwise, they continue to be marginalized.”
It’s true that Morsi’s values and the platform of the Muslim Brotherhood rest on old-fashioned conservatism. They expect women to fulfill lesser roles in society because the accepted ideology is that they are lesser individuals, biologically designed to care for the home and family. They grant small freedoms to their women as a means of humoring them— allowing them to speak their minds with men and hold minimally important jobs in office. But their worth is still unequivocally undervalued.
As great leaders in all countries have witnessed throughout time, progress is not achieved overnight. It is a long, grueling fight that cannot be won until the suppressed party truly believes they deserve victory. For such a duty-bound, religious country like Egypt, it will take a long while to convince women they are worthy of all the same privileges as men. For now, they are satisfied with and willing to fight for those small freedoms.
Everything has to start somewhere.