Thousands of former President Mohamed Morsi’s supporters were marching through the streets of Heliopolis when a group of young girls started singing the popular Ultras chant against the police and shooting fireworks. Their male counterparts distributed water bottles among thirsty protesters.
The scene indicated an obvious shift in the group’s gender roles.
For Wafaa Hefni — granddaughter of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and head of the Nasr City women’s division of the MB — there has been a gap between what Muslim Sisters are accustomed to, and what they are starting to discover are their real capabilities.
Hefni explains that Muslim Sisters were told that they could not do certain things, “but when the time of crisis came, they did it. They proved that they can be as efficient as men.”
Many Muslim Sisters have recently witnessed the death, injury or arrest of a husband, father or son in the aftermath of Morsi’s ouster, particularly since the brutal crackdown on sit-ins held by his supporters at Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda Square on August 14. Since then, women in the Islamist group have been forced to step up and act independently on all fronts.
Sisters have found themselves running their household alone, going to work or supervising their husband’s businesses, as well as taking part in the protests calling for the release of the detained, or demanding retribution for those killed.
A prime example is Azza Abdel Rahman, head of the Women’s Committee in the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party in Maadi. Her husband, Mohamed Abdel Kadir — a middle-ranking leader in the Muslim Brotherhood and an employee in a private company — was detained after the Rabea sit-in dispersal.
After her husband’s arrest, in one day she had to become both mother and father for her three children, Abdel Rahman tells Mada Masr.
“Before Rabea, I used to be protected. My husband used to do all outdoor household duties. He handled all financial issues, he bought our groceries, paid the tuition for the children’s schools,” she says.
Now, she has taken on all his duties, in addition to participating in protests on a daily basis. “If his detention is extended to a longer period, I will definitely have to look for a job as well,” Abdel Rahman adds.
Hefni says this is a significant move away from how female members of the group previously operated.
She point out that the Brothers had developed a protective attitude towards women, where any kind of political involvement was seen as a threat to their safety and chastity.
Dardaa Fathy, a young Muslim Brotherhood supporter whose uncle is a member of the group, agrees that there was over-protectiveness of women.
“Every man was so protective over his women. They feared that women could be imprisoned and subjected to violations and humiliation. I guess this is the nature of the Egyptian people in general, not just the Brothers alone,” she asserts.
Fathy, a graduate of Al-Azhar University’s linguistics school, says that her uncle prevented her and her female family members from taking part in protests prior to the Rabea dispersal.
“My uncle would tell us they have not gotten any orders to let women go to protest. This really angered us,” she recalls.
But now, Fathy explains, following the arrests of most of the Brotherhood’s leaders, “the space is much more open for women, and for everyone else, to act independently.”
Previously, there were many attempts to initiate reforms within the group that would give women more autonomy, and “the crisis took the attempts to higher levels. A woman who lost her husband, father, or son can no longer be silenced,” Fathy says.
The violent dispersal of the sit-ins made room for women to be more politically active, especially given a landmark shift in their role in organizing protests, Hefni adds.
“We have seen for the first time female marches, marches organized wholly by women,” she explains.
One of the narratives propagated by state-run media is that women have become more visible in Muslim Brotherhood protests because men were using them as human shields. However, the Nazra Center for Feminist Studies points out that female deaths in Rabea amount to only 1.9 percent of the total deaths, thus discrediting that theory.
In fact, violence perpetuated against Muslim Sisters may be coming from the state itself. Female members of the Muslim Brotherhood are increasingly becoming targets of arrest and violence.
Nazra said 17 female protesters were killed in the forced dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in, and one in Nahda Square. It also reported the detention of 57 women following the dispersals in August. Nazra reported that the female detainees were subject to abuses including forced pregnancy tests, beatings and being left in police trucks for hours.
Earlier in November, 21 female protesters were arrested in Alexandria following a march organized by the Muslim Brotherhood against the military.
The women, aged 15 to 22 — 15 of whom were minors — were arrested by security forces as they attempted to form a human chain on the Corniche.
The photos of the incarcerated women with their headscarves almost ripped off ignited serious criticism against the security forces.
As women gain greater visibility in the streets and in the public sphere, “the more violations they will encounter to limit their presence,” says Dalia Abdel Hameed, a researcher on gender issues at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
Abdel Hameed tells Mada Masr that following Morsi’s ouster, women of all political allegiances have consistently been targeted based on their appearance.
Brotherhood members may attack non-veiled women at protests because they suspect that they are Copts, while anti-Brotherhood protesters may attack women who dress conservatively or wear the niqab, she explains.
“Violations against women are mostly gender-based, meaning that women are being violated just because they are women. One of the known practices is virginity and pregnancy tests. A patriarchal discourse is always adopted by the state to challenge women’s increasing presence in the public sphere by using women’s sexuality against them,” Abdel Hameed asserts.
She is also concerned by the increasing attacks on female journalists covering Brotherhood protests.
Video journalists Menna Alaa and May al-Shamy were both attacked by Brotherhood supporters while covering recent demonstrations.
Alaa, who works for the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, was attacked and her camera stolen during a Brotherhood protest before the August 14 dispersal. She says the attack was perpetuated by a group of demonstrators that was angered when they saw her filming protesters allegedly smashing a car parking in the street.
Shamy was severely beaten by protesters when they discovered she worked for the independent Youm7 newspaper, which they described as a virulently anti-Brotherhood publication that incites hatred against the group. Shamy’s arm was broken in the attack.
However, despite this increasingly active political role, Hefni maintains that a woman’s most important duty is her family and children, which still doesn’t stop her from filling other important political, social and professional roles.
“A woman needs to be an ideal wife. She should give the space for her husband to be the master of the household so that her life could stabilize,” she explains.
“In our courses, we teach women how to achieve their own will inside their households without being confrontational with their husbands. It is all about how to deal with him in a smart way. This drives outsiders to believe we are oppressed, which is not true; we are just trying to act smart without provoking our men, who should enjoy their own prestige,” Hefni adds.
The Muslim Brotherhood has often been criticized for violating women’s rights and perpetuating a conservative, even hostile discourse about women.
During Morsi’s presidency, an Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly removed an article from the draft constitution that granted equal rights for women after a dispute erupted over whether women’s rights should be implemented according to the principles of Sharia.
While ultra-conservative Salafi representatives and Brotherhood members supported restricting women’s rights to Sharia, liberal members in the assembly argued that Sharia could be used as a backdoor for further violations of women’s rights. It was later agreed to remove any articles specifically pertaining to women in the Constitution, which was suspended following Morsi’s ouster and is currently being redrafted.
In addition, in 2012 the Brotherhood issued a contentious statement that rejected a UN-authored proposal to end violence against women, deeming it contradictory to the principles of Sharia.
The group said the declaration would lead to the disintegration of society, and would be the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries.
The statement also rejected “giving wives full rights to file legal complaints against husbands accusing them of rape or sexual harassment, obliging competent authorities to sentence husbands with punishments similar to those meted out for raping or sexually harassing a stranger.”
The group feared that these “destructive tools” would undermine the family as an institution and subvert the entire society, dragging it to “pre-Islamic ignorance,” the statement read.
Therefore, Abdel Hameed remains skeptical about women’s liberalization inside the group, despite the recent “feminization” of Brotherhood protests.
“We have never seen any rejection from the side of Brotherhood’s women leaders towards the organization’s policies towards women. Violations against women increased under Morsi’s reign, and their discourse is very backward,” she argues.
Abdel Hameed is not optimistic about the changing gender roles inside the Brotherhood, adding that it may lead to more rights for women inside the organization, but might not necessarily benefit the overall struggle for women’s rights in Egypt.
“I cannot imagine female Brotherhood leaders fighting in the same battlefield against sexual harassment, or supporting female breadwinners in their quest for social justice. These battles contradict with the ideology of the Brotherhood,” she claims.
For her part, Hefni believes the underground nature of the organization under the Mubarak regime is to blame for the lack of female representation in the Brotherhood’s leadership, hence limiting any potential advanced roles for women.
“Female-related activities were always supervised by female leaders, whose husbands report to the male leaders of the organization. Hence, women did not have an independent hierarchy to organize their affairs. On financial and administrative levels, female activities were completely dependent on the leadership of the organization, on top of which was the completely male-dominated Shura Council and Guidance Bureau,” she explains.
However, when the Muslim Brotherhood gained a measure of freedom to operate publicly after the revolution, room was made for Muslim Sisters to establish some independence. Female leaders were elected to organize female-related activities.
Still, for many, the representation of Muslim Sisters in Parliament and in the political scene following the January 25 uprising remains minimal, if not cosmetic; and some feel the faces presented in the mainstream political sphere have done little to properly represent the group.
A Muslim Sister who preferred to remain anonymous explains that those women who appeared publicly as leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood were not actually representative of their constituents.
“Egypt under Mubarak was living in a corrupt atmosphere, where those who reached leadership positions were those who managed to circumvent the system … The Brotherhood is part of Egypt, and was never an exception,” she explains.
The sister adds that many of those who reached top positions inside the movement were not necessarily qualified, and never represented the real capabilities of female leaders.
“But it was a matter of time,” she says. “All of these problems [of misrepresentation] would have been solved if the democratic process was left to continue. Female leaders of the Brotherhood would have found their way out, they would have managed to change the rule of the game.”
For Hefni and other female Muslim Brotherhood members, the path to full independence and administrative and ideological reform inside the organization was impeded by the military takeover that removed Morsi from power on July 3.
“If the process of real political freedom had continued, the elected female leaders would have found their way to the top leadership of the Shura Council and the Guidance Bureau,” Hefni argues. “If the natural cycle of change was left to continue, things would have completely shifted.”
But Abdel Rahman thinks that after Rabea, the shift in the Muslim Sisters’ mindset is radical enough for them not to go backwards.
She asserts, “All women who were dependent are now extremely independent. You cannot tell someone who finally learned how to walk to stop walking.”