Muslim Brotherhood women try to assuage concerns of women's rights activists

by Safaa Abdoun | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 9 November 2012 17:15 GMT

If there is a group of women who have the power and access to influence the women's rights agenda in Egypt, it is the women of the Muslim Brotherhood

CAIRO (TrustLaw) – Fear and controversy concerning the inclusion and protection of women’s rights continue to surround the drafting of a new Egyptian constitution, which is due to be completed in early December.

Women’s rights activists fear that Islamists, currently in the political majority, will seek to undermine and restrict rights for women in the draft constitution.

Great controversy arose over Article 68, formerly known as Article 36, which states: "The state is committed to taking all constitutional and executive measures to ensure equality of women with men in all walks of political, cultural, economic and social life, without contradicting the precepts of Islamic Law."

Activists have argued that Islamists will interpret the clause “without contradicting the precepts of Islamic Law” as a means to roll back women’s rights and justify such traditions as early marriage and female genital mutilation.

The article has been dropped by Egypt’s constitutional assembly, for now. But the draft constitution is still being finalised and the decision could be reversed before the official presentation of the draft in early December.

The decision to drop article 68 has angered the more conservative members of the body who are pushing for a greater role of Islamic law in the new constitution. 

“Article 36 is more than amazing and ensures equality for women in every aspect of life,” said Omaima Kamel, one of seven women - five of them members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a mainstream Islamist movement - on the 100-member Constituent Assembly, the body assigned to draft the new constitution.

“Age of marriage is not even mentioned, you cannot state an age in the constitution, this is a legislative issue not a constitutional one,” she added. 

Kamel is a longstanding member of the Brotherhood, currently the country’s strongest political force, holding a majority of seats in the legislative and executive branches of government.

A member of President Mohamed Mursi’s advisory committee and the Women’s Affairs spokesperson on his electoral campaign, she is deeply involved in the decision-making process that will shape women’s rights in Egypt under the new constitution.

If there is a group of women who have the power and access to influence the women’s rights agenda in Egypt, it is Kamel and her sister members of the Brotherhood.

Female members of the Brotherhood have long had a strong presence on the streets, working at the grass-roots level with citizens on social and political issues. However, their role has been mainly limited to the mobilisation of voters.

The movement fielded its first female candidate, Jihan El-Halafawi, in the 2000 parliamentary elections, marking a turning point for the Brotherhood.

“[Jihan] created a mind-shift within the group, especially for the female members,” said Nermine Abdel Bary, member of the Brotherhood’s Foreign Relations Committee.

“Members were not surprised at the idea of her being a member of parliament but were wondering about issues related to fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence], such as placing her pictures on the wall,” she said.  Brotherhood female candidates are now free to post their images, a practice that was not followed in the 2011 elections by female candidates from the ultra-conservative Salafi Al-Noor Party.

Abdel Bary noted that even though workshops were held at that time to train Brotherhood women for decision-making positions, there was apparently no plan to promote women to leadership positions within the group itself.

Women are believed to make up nearly 25 percent of the Brotherhood; total membership figures are unknown but have been estimated to be as high as 2 million. Earlier this year, Ikhwanweb , the Brotherhood’s official English language website, referred to the group as having “400,000 members” in its Twitter feed.

Women are still banned from the group’s two supreme decision-making bodies, the Shura Council, which is the legislative body, and the Guidance Bureau, the executive arm.

Women are not allowed to either vote or run in the group’s internal elections. For critics, this raises the question of how, if women do not have a decisive voice within the Brotherhood or positions in its key bodies, they can represent the women of Egypt.

Both Kamel and Abdel Bary admit that the restrictions on Brotherhood women are unfair but insist that things are changing and changing fast. Following the January 25 Revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood founded its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). In the elections for the party’s executive office, Camilia Helmy won a seat on the six-member board, the only woman to do so.

In October, Sabah Hussein Saqqari, Secretary of the Brotherhood’s Women’s Committee in Eastern Cairo and Assistant Secretary-General of the Women’s Department in Cairo, submitted her application to run for the position of party chairman, having got the support of 100 members as required. However, she did not make it to the final round of voting for that position.

On Sept. 30, the FJP launched its Women Cadres Project which aims at preparing female members for key positions within the party and the country.

“The FJP is keen to revitalise the role of women in all fields and disciplines. Women are in the FJP’s various secretariats, including provincial and party unit secretariats. This illustrates the FJP’s balanced vision and moderate attitudes towards women,” said Essam El Erian, the acting head of the party at the time of the launch.

Despite these developments, scepticism remains regarding the motives of the Brotherhood, as critics insist that these are simply cosmetic moves to promote the party as women-friendly and improve its image internationally and among secularists and liberals.

Some experts believe that people are less afraid of the Brotherhood itself than of the steady growth of conservatism in Egyptian society it fosters through its leadership.

Said Sadek, professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo, said that having the Muslim Brotherhood in power will make the people more conservative not because of  specific legislation,  but because Egyptians are conditioned to follow their leaders and not challenge them or their beliefs.

“The people have lived under a dictatorship all their lives and since ancient Egypt they’ve only known the God King, that is, applauding their leader and following his ideology,” said Sadek.

 “Hence, the fear is not from the ‘Ikhwanization’ [Ikhwan is Arabic for Brotherhood] of state institutions but from the ‘Ikhwanization’ of society, which is a slow but steadily growing process,” he added.

The second largest political power in Egypt is the ultra-conservative Salafi Al-Noor Party, which rose after the revolution. “The presence of the Salafis is pushing the Muslim Brotherhood to be more religious,” said Yara Sallam, head of the Women Human Rights Defenders Program at the  Nazra Center for Feminist Studies.

The discourse surrounding women’s rights since the revolution has become increasingly confrontational as feminists and women’s rights activists regularly stage protests and conferences to fight, among other things, Islamist proposals to lower the minimum age of marriage from 18 and reverse the law criminalizing female genital mutilation. 

“These are all simply political bubbles they’re presenting. If I’m a religious group I want to provide a conservative religious discourse which the masses who voted for me wanted,” said Sallam. “This comes alongside a lack of vision of what to do with the country,” she said.

Until a final constitution is adopted, the future for Egyptian women remains unknown.   The women of the Muslim Brotherhood are optimistic and have high hopes for strong representation and equality. Women’s rights activists remain wary, but are confident they can counter religious interpretations with interpretations of their own.

“If they talk to us in Sharia, we’ll talk to them in Sharia.  There are plenty of interpretations which will not set us back,” said the Nazra Center’s Sallam.

This article is part of a Thomson Reuters Foundation multimedia package on the women of the Arab Spring

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