Girl Power: Inside Egypt's Muslim Sisterhood
As army tanks came to a halt in front of a group of protesters lying in the road, the air thick with teargas, Wafaa Hefny didn’t hesitate.
“I walked up to the soldiers standing on each tank and said ‘your mothers will curse you. Do not fire at your brothers - go back,’” she recalls. “All the tanks moved back.”
Hefny, 46, is a university instructor and an active Muslim Brotherhood member. Speaking at home, she wears a crimson traditional dress, her hair streaked with a few grey lines.
When security forces began to disperse a sit-in by supporters of Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi at Rabaa Al-Adawiya on 14 August, Hefny and her husband immediately went there.
Hefny had spent several weeks camping at the Rabaa protest with her family. When she arrived at the site - in Cairo's Nasr City - she found no way in. So she joined people going to nearby Al-Tayaran Street where they forced tanks to retreat.
After her encounter with the tanks, she spent the night transporting dead bodies out of the ruins of Rabaa.
Women on the streets
Hefny was not the only female member of the Brotherhood who took to Cairo’s streets when the protest camps were dispersed.
Though the Brotherhood, an 85-year-old Islamist group founded by Hassan El-Banna, is seen as a male-dominant group, it has a lot of “sisters” who participate in different roles. They may not, however, reach leading positions or rise to the fore after a lot of the men were arrested recently.
“Women are more active on the street than men,” Sameh Eid, a former member of the Brotherhood, tells Ahram Online.
“They engage actively in public relations and elections campaigns; they are passionate and enthusiastic members,” he says.
Hefny, who is the granddaughter of Hassan El-Banna, agrees that women are an important part of the organisation. According to her, women are especially suited to media and campaigning work because of their skill sets, and were an important part of Brotherhood electoral campaigns during the Mubarak era. Male members of the group, which was suppressed under the former president, ran a bigger risk of being targeted by the security forces.
Women also take part in Brotherhood charity organising, schools, and local committees engaged in different activities.
When the group formed the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) after the January 2011 revolution, many women joined the party. And when the party won the largest number of seats in the 2011 elections, three out of a total nine female MPs were party members.
A year later, Morsi has been ousted from power and the group is facing a major security crackdown, but many women members remain active.
A group called Women Against the Coup was launched shortly after Morsi's removal to call for his reinstatement. The group had a significant presence in the pro-Morsi protests camps at Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Nahda Square, with hundreds of women joining the demonstrations.
Similarly, following the dispersal of the second camp at Nahda Square in Giza, many of the protesters, including women, went to Mustafa Mahmoud Square to try to set up a new sit-in.
“The men told us: you’re a burden, we are unable to protect ourselves or protect you. And they asked us to leave, but we refused,” says Nahla Farouk, 28, an FJP member, doctor and reporter at Nahda’s media centre.
Soon after, as clashes intensified in the area, these women set up a field hospital.
Women among the dead
Being on the streets, however, had a cost for the women, with many killed, injured or arrested.
A report by the Front for the Defence of Egyptian Protesters (FDEP), an independent group of volunteer activists and lawyers, lists the names of 24 women it says have been killed since 14 August.
Sixteen of them died in the Rabaa Al-Adawiya dispersal. Among them was Asmaa El-Beltagy, 17, daughter of leading Brotherhood figure Mohamed El-Beltagy, currently detained facing charges of inciting violence.
Women have also been targeted in the wave of arrests of Brotherhood members and leaders since the violence at Rabaa.
A news report dated 9 September on the FJP’s official website claims the number of arrested women reached 240. However, the group does not have a list of names.
Aya Alaa, spokesperson for Women Against the Coup, seconds that number, saying many had been released, but adds that it was very difficult to give a definitive figure.
“There is blackout from the prison authority and the prosecution on the numbers,” she says.
According to an FDEP report, at least 32 women associated with the Brotherhood have been arrested since 14 August. Nineteen of those were released while the location of three is “unknown.”
Several arrested women declined to recount their experiences to Ahram Online, in some cases because investigations were still ongoing.
The crackdown means dozens of key Brotherhood figures are behind bars, including the group’s spiritual leader Mohamed Badie and his deputy Khairat El-Shater.
Eid dismisses the idea that the absence of male cadre could lead to women taking on key roles.
“That’s impossible,” he says. “The group is very hierarchical and in every area there is a second line of men, or more, who can assume such roles, but not women.
“It is true that women are very active on the ground, but the Brotherhood is primarily built around men, women’s roles are complementary,” he added.
Originally, a "Muslim Sisterhood" was founded as a group within the Brotherhood in April 1933 in Ismailia city. It was under the leadership of Brotherhood founder Hassan El-Banna, but had a woman deputy.
Through meetings, lectures and writings it aimed to promote Islamic morals and virtues, and combat “common superstitions” among women.
Shortly after its formation, the Brotherhood’s general secretariat opted to expand the idea nationwide and formed the Sisterhood division led by Labiba Ahmed under El-Banna’s overall leadership.
When the Brotherhood was disbanded in 1948, the Sisterhood stopped organizationally though its members continued to take part in the group’s activities before the current sisters division was created later.
Today, despite their activity in election campaigns, and their official right to vote in national polls, female members are not allowed to vote in the Brotherhood’s internal elections.
The Brotherhood’s regulatory charter only allows men with full membership to cast a vote.
Women do not have the right to nominate themselves for leadership roles, even locally.
In a blogpost titled "A letter to the Supreme Guide", circulated online in 2007, Brotherhood member Rasha Ahmed expressed some key concerns about women’s role in the group.
“No one can deny the sisters played a key role in bringing the Brotherhood's candidates to parliament … If the sisters carry out difficult roles like the men, why don’t they have an equal right to choose the officials in the group?” Ahmed asked, a lecturer in medicine at an Egyptian university.
“When I expressed this to a member of our governorate administrative office he replied sarcastically: ‘you are just a section like other sections in the group.’ Is he right? Does our [Brotherhood] view us with such inferiority?”
The Brotherhood general office has a “sisters” division alongside about ten other divisions, including workers, media, students, and others. According to the Brotherhood’s internal rules, the sisters division is to be headed by a man.
These nationwide divisions are at the top of the group’s internal hierarchy, just below the executive offices. Each division then has a series of hierarchical committees below it that decrease in geographical size until they reach local areas within neighbourhoods.
Locally, men are also usually appointed to supervise the women’s committees, even if they are run in practice by a woman, often the wife of the man nominated to lead.
Hefny acknowledges these concerns and says that following the 2011 revolution, Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie - currently facing trial - met with a delegation of sisters to discuss these issues.
At the meeting they decided that female heads of the smallest unit of local women’s committees be elected by the women in this committee. She says this is how she heads her local group of sisters.
Hefny says she had hoped that step by step women would gain more independence within the group.
Eid, however, brushes off the possibility that this was a serious initiative on the part of the Brotherhood’s male-dominant leadership. He says such an action would need a serious high-level meeting in the group in Egypt, and also on a global level.
On the other hand, some women members say major developments are unnecessary if an efficient communication system is established internally in the Brotherhood.
“Our voice did not reach up to the leading ranks because of a hierarchical middle channel that was ineffective,” Lamyaa Mayer, 31, an ex-Brotherhood member, says.
She adds that it wasn’t only the women targeted by this; it was the same for all the base members of the group.
“Sometimes members of the guidance office, for example at the 2011 parliamentary elections, would have meetings with women members to discuss the Brotherhood’s views, plans and the women’s questions or suggestions. However, these meetings were not a rule,” she says.
Mayer believes people appointed in middle positions in the Brotherhood should be chosen based on efficiency and expertise.
“I do not care if women are present in the guidance office… if there is a clear mechanism in place for communication,” Mayer says.
While some women engage actively socially and politically, Sisters’ division head Ahmed El-Shaarawi seems to remain committed to promoting women's traditional role.
He says that the three main aims of the division were to raise girls into mature women, spread the values of Islam and prepare women to become wives and mothers.
Indeed Hefny says the group's men and women both firmly believe a woman's primary God-given role is to be a mother and "raise the next generation," and this is an important mission in itself. If she has more ability and time she then gives it to other work, she says.
“Women's political participation is not large because of our culture,” El-Shaarawi adds.
While it remains to be seen what the kind of impact the summer’s political upheaval will have on the Brotherhood organisation, for now its female members continue to take part in weekly demonstrations against what they term a coup.
“I have sore feet from the daily marches,” Hefny said, smiling.