Sondos Asem was five years old when Hosni Mubarak’s security men broke into the family home after midnight, dragged her father from his bed and locked him up in jail for 18 months. The memory would scar her for life. “We were young, we were scared, it was a traumatising experience for women and children,” she recalls. Her father’s sin was membership of the political bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed Islamist movement that tormented Egypt’s dictatorial regimes for decades before helping to bring it to an abrupt end in last year’s revolution. Belonging to a Muslim Brotherhood family imposed a life of clandestine activity and intrigue that forced Asem to hide her identity for much of her teenage years. Then she saw her professional ambitions constrained by employers’ reluctance to associate themselves with Islamists. “All repressed societies are careful what they say or to whom,” she says.
To Asem’s relief, those days are now gone and the Brotherhood is rapidly consolidating its political power in the Arab world’s largest nation. Her father’s publishing house is back in business and she, even at the young age of 25, is an active member of the women’s branch of the Brotherhood – an arm of the movement whose activism has long been overshadowed by the men.
Asem studied English and communications and now edits the Brotherhood’s English website. She also travels with the organisation’s political party, Freedom and Justice (FJP), as its leaders attempt to promote their cause as a credible democratic project to a west long sceptical about Islamists’ intentions and fearful that they are on their way to imposing their Islamist vision.
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).
Within the Brotherhood itself many leaders, including president Morsi, believe that the presidency, as well as the highest authority in the organisation, the position of murshid or supreme guide is off limits for women. This is an interpretation that many sisters I have met do not like but say they accept.
But the Muslim sisters are something of a paradox, and one that defies the Islamist stereotype. There is no denying that they are skilful political activists and are now increasingly relied upon to further the goals of the FJP. What they are not, however, are feminists looking for the type of freedom that liberals and secular women cherish. Hard-working and determined, the Muslim sisters believe in economic and political advancement but are more docile when it comes to their role within the family. They see feminism at best as the path to the destruction of the family. “Most sisters are professionals, very active, very energetic, very strong, but they don’t have feminist consciousness,” says Oumayma Abu Bakr, an Egyptian expert on Islam and gender.
It is only now, moreover, as they join the FJP, that they are being offered an opportunity for influence. The sisters have never had any significant say within the Brotherhood, even though they make up 50 per cent of the movement (out of a total membership estimated at one million when the group was still banned). They have never paid monthly dues, never voted for the leadership and never been rewarded for their contribution with any official position. Many of the sisters, including Egypt’s first lady, Naglaa Ali, have mostly engaged in da’awa (preaching the message of Islam) and social work. These two activities cannot be dissociated from each other: those who they help through charities run by the Brotherhood, including schools and hospitals, are also more likely to listen to their Islamist message.
Gradually, however, the sisters have become more engaged in politics – a process that is now accelerating, and they hope will lead to recognition of their critical role. A few weeks ago the FJP, no doubt eager to calm liberal (and western) jitters over the Islamists’ plans for women in post-revolution Egypt, launched a series of workshops to develop women cadres, teaching them everything from campaigning to media skills. One morning in early October I listened to Sondos Asem’s mother, Manal al-Hassan, a party official and communications professor, lecturing women on the power of the media and how to distinguish between true and fake news. Television channels spread lies about the Brotherhood, she told the attendees, because they are in a struggle for survival with the Islamists – for them it is “to be or not to be”, she said in English. The media is used to denigrating women who wear the veil, she went on, but all this mischief can be countered. “They say the Brotherhood has the strongest media. Why is that?” she asked. One of the women in the audience shot back the right answer: “The Brotherhood is strong in face-to-face communication.” A week earlier, in the same conference room in downtown Cairo, the acting head of the party Essam el-Erian reassured the women that their role was central, not merely supportive, and promised that it would be “revitalised” in all fields.
One of those attending the workshop was Fatma al-Zomor, a warm, enthusiastic teacher from a village near Cairo who was recently elected as assistant head of the teachers’ syndicate, a union in which elections had been banned under Mubarak. I had first met her two days earlier in the ramshackle offices of the syndicate and she had told me that the time had arrived for women to highlight their role in the Brotherhood. “Before the revolution the Muslim Brotherhood had a red line – and that red line was the sisters. They would not put them in the limelight because they feared for them. They had pledged that they would not allow the security services to arrest women.”
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 sisters tell me that everything they do, whether helping people in need, teaching Islam or campaigning for office, is in the service of God. I met a group of young sisters who are part of a new Brotherhood-backed student organisation on the leafy campus of Cairo’s Ain Shams university. They were huddled on a bench listening to 21-year-old Aya Mustafa reading and explaining a Koranic verse about loyalty. “Ikhlas [loyalty] means to do something for god and not ask for praise in return or for monetary compensation,” says Mustafa.
She explains that the new organisation, Nour, assists students with religious education and university life, launching campaigns for better accommodation and more security on campus. Before the revolution she used to distribute leaflets about Islam and food parcels during Ramadan, but would be harassed by security guards who accused her of wanting to overthrow the Mubarak government. “Egypt was destroyed by Mubarak and, while the men have the biggest burden, we have to help. I felt the weight of responsibility to join Freedom and Justice now that we can have parties because, for us, Islam cannot be disassociated from politics.” When Mustafa mentions that Nour is organising a conference about women leaders, I ask her for examples of such figures. “People like Oprah [Winfrey], for example, but there are also many in Islamic history who even participated in wars and were teachers to some men.” We also talk about love and relationships, and the limits on Islamist girls. They tell me Islamic teachings make them feel precious. “A woman is a very special thing in Islam, her body and her heart is for one man only, it is not a commodity. So we need to protect ourselves,” says Mustafa.
The older sisters are for the most part educated, middle-class women who wear their hijab conservatively, letting it hang down their shoulders over loose clothing. They are taught not to wear make-up or jewellery that might attract the attention of men other than their husbands, and nor do they pluck their eyebrows, something they say is forbidden by a saying of the prophet.
“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.”
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.
Ghazali is held up as an inspiration to sisters of all generations. Azza al-Gharf, a 48-year-old member of parliament for the Brotherhood, studied under Ghazali and became attached to her, taking up the preaching and charity work that has made her one of the most high-profile sisters. Gharf told me that Ghazali had picked her husband, another Brotherhood member, whom Gharf married when she was 18 before they both went to university. Gharf’s own work has been in getting women involved in grassroots activities, including educating others. “Instead of sitting in front of the television, women should engage in social work,” she says.
It was during the Nasser years that the sisters, who still had freedom of movement, became more active. “When the sisters’ branch was first created, the role of the woman was still in the home, she raised the children and she was the biggest support for her husband. But when the men were repressed, when they were away, and the families had financial strains, the women helped, they could still interact with society, still go to charities and to mosques,” explains Amal Abdelkarim, who heads the FJP women’s section in the governorate of Giza.
The 1970s were kinder to the sisterhood, as Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, eased the pressure on the Brotherhood, and political activism flourished at the universities. “Sadat was opening up a bit and politics were thriving at the universities. That’s when I joined – the Muslim Brotherhood seemed closer to my views because it taught that Islam was a way of life,” says Jihan al-Halafawi, a prominent sister who recently suspended her membership in the Brotherhood after her husband, one of the group’s leaders, clashed with other senior figures.
Halafawi made history in 2000 in Alexandria as the first female Brotherhood candidate for parliament. Sadat had been assassinated in 1981 and Hosni Mubarak was president. His attitude towards the banned Brotherhood oscillated between tolerance and repression. “When I ran, the world was turned upside down, within the Brotherhood but also within the regime,” recalls Halafawi, a small 60-year-old woman whose shy appearance belies her fiery spirit. We are in her cluttered Cairo apartment, and she sits with her arms crossed. “It was a big crisis for the regime, which was saying that the Brotherhood was a backward organisation.” The regime conspired to deny her a victory even though she received the highest number of votes in her district. But she nonetheless set the Brotherhood on a new course. “A step had been taken and the Muslim Brotherhood could not go back. It opened up to women candidates.”
Halafawi is among the sisters who have been asking for official positions for women in the Brotherhood – something which she says has become possible since the revolution. She tells me that some women are demanding representation in the guidance bureau, the highest structure in the organisation, under the supreme guide.
It was not until last year’s parliamentary vote, however, that candidates associated with the Brotherhood reached parliament, with four women elected in December (the assembly has since been dissolved). But while the sisters acknowledge that most women in the Brotherhood still vote for male candidates, they have proved their value as activists in campaigns and in mobilising the female vote. “When men saw what we could accomplish in elections, they started to change the way they look at us,” says 35-year-old Nermeen Hassan, a professor at Cairo University’s medical school. “I remember how in 2005, in the first rally by women during an election campaign, the men were giving us instructions all the time, telling us not to lose our temper, not to appear too emotional. But then they were impressed – the sisters carried their children with them and marched, and we were clever in how we dealt with the street, we didn’t even disrupt traffic.”
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.
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.
Many liberal women, however, consider the sisters and their ability to influence mainstream society as a bigger threat than the Brotherhood men. “I can’t claim to understand them 100 per cent but I think they have undergone some kind of brainwashing,” says Hoda Badran, chairwoman of the Alliance for Arab Women, a liberal women’s group.
I hear more dread at a Cairo demonstration where liberal women are protesting against a constitution drafting process that is overwhelmingly influenced by the Brotherhood. “What scares me is that the sisters are all about obedience and loyalty – the commands come from high above and they just follow,” says Zeynab Abdel Rahman, a 40-year-old veiled woman who runs a charity and supports a liberal party. “If the Brotherhood writes the constitution, they will rule according to their sharia.”
To be sure, the Muslim sisters live in a peculiar world, with the strict interpretations of Islam leaving them with convictions that seem at odds with fast-changing modernity. For decades, they have been cocooned in a society that sustained itself by looking inwards and guarding its secrets – Brotherhood families have often intermarried, for example. Although there is much debate within the movement, once a decision is taken by the guidance bureau, such as the move to field a presidential candidate, which the Brotherhood had promised Egyptians it would not do, discussion ends.
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.
Roula Khalaf is the FT’s Middle East editor