Don’t let Egypt become the next Iran: How Secular and Non-Secular Egyptian Women are Demanding for their Rights

Part II: Feminism and Islam: A Patriarchal Bargain or ‘Alternative Modernities’
As political pundits, women’s rights advocates, foreign policy watchdogs and so on argue to heed the danger of a growing radical Islamic stronghold in Egyptian’s weak transitioning period, one thing is often forgotten: the role of Islamic, non-secular women in Egypt’s future. As defenders of women’s rights, we are quick to discredit the existence of feminism in the realm of religion.

Women’s rights in the Arab Spring is often assumed to be a secular movement in opposition to religion as a patriarchal force. But just as democracy depends on the collective will of the people, so too does the drive to achieve women’s rights and gender equity. We are too quick to equate Egypt’s women’s movement with other Western women’s movements. It is necessarily organic and unique in its own way –an Egyptian feminism that is founded in Islamic and Secular principles – and democratic in its own way.

Religious Egyptian women have founded their feminism in Islamic principles. They claim that the Qur’an was never meant to be a misogynist patriarchal document but has been reinterpreted over the years as such. They have taken up the challenge of reinterpreting Islamic religious principles finding the basis for gender equality in Qur’anic text. Whether this is progressive enough to please Western Feminists is not the important thing here – this is a movement that is unique to Egyptians and belonging to Egyptians. It is because of this that I am encouraged to believe it to be a long-lasting women’s movement, this time around.

Long live freedom!” declares graffiti in Tunis: Tunisian men and women mobilized side-by-side against the authoritarian regime.
Photograph: Reuters / Louafi Larbi

So, In Part II of this blog, I want to talk about the Muslim Sisters in the Muslim Brotherhood. Resistance comes in many forms and we should not discount the ripples of Islamic feminist voices coming from within the radical groups.

The Muslim Brothers, founded by Hasan al-Banna, emphasized the institution of an Islamic state with clearly defined gender roles in a patriarchal structure. Yet, fundamentalist Islamic women have started to find ways of improving their status while supporting the patriarchal structure of the Brotherhood. While women were not allowed in the Brotherhood itself, Hassan al-Banna responded to calls for women’s inclusion by setting up a sister group called Ferqat al-akhawaat al muslimaat (The Muslim Sisters Group) in 1932. “It consisted mainly of the daughters, wives, and other relatives of the Brothers, a practice that remained central in the Sisters’ recruitment. Familial ties still play an important role in increasing membership.” The Sisters Group remained under the authority and jurisdiction of the Brotherhood. The head of the group was a Brother who advised the Sisters on their fundamental duties: “to uphold the Islamic ethos and spread virtue through lectures and women-only gatherings.”[ii]These women spread their message by working in medical clinics, helping families in need and inviting other women to join their meetings.

As the Muslim Brotherhood struggled to survive throughout Egypt’s regime changes, the Sisters were the ones to maintain the movement’s survival through their charitable work and medical clinics. In 2000, the brotherhood nominated a female candidate to run for a legislative position. Over the years of the brotherhood’s existence in Modern Egypt, the sisters have been able to bargain for more representation and more opportunities in the public sphere, albeit within the strict precepts of Islam. While the sisters have been used, perhaps instrumentally, by the brotherhood to gain popularity and spread their vision, we should not discount the important and duelling role these women play in the larger women’s movement in Egypt.

In post revolution Egypt today, where secular women continue to fight for their rights in the public sphere, it is important to not overlook the women within the brotherhood who have fought for their own qu’ranically defined rights.  While women’s call to play a bigger role within the brotherhood may seem like a perpetuation of the subordination of women, it does not mean it is not a form of resistance. It may be a patriarchal bargain, but an important bargain nonetheless. It is part of a century’s long change to women’s recognition in Islamic doctrine – a reinterpretation of Islamic doctrine that does not regard the Qur’an as patriarchal force.

By Amy Bisno

Read Part I : Secular Feminist Voices in Iran and Egypt

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