The Muslim Sisterhood: Visions of Female Identity in the New Egypt

By Dialika Krahe

Part 3: Today's Atypical Muslim Sister

Photo Gallery: Defining the Modern Muslim Woman in Egypt Photos
REUTERS

When Jihan says this, she is thinking of young women like Arwa.

Arwa El-Taweel, the youngest of the three Muslim Sisters, is 21. She opens the door to her house in the small Egyptian city of Abu Kebir, about 85 kilometers (53 miles) northeast of Cairo. She lives with her parents and siblings in a house that would qualify as "nouveau riche" in Egypt. The furniture in the living room is imitation Louis XVI, with gilded legs, and the flower arrangements are ostentatious. Her father, a pharmacist, works in the Gulf countries.

Arwa removes her veil. She can only do so because she's at home, she explains, and because there are no men in the room who could marry her. She hangs the veil on the doorknob, revealing a brown ponytail, shiny earrings and a tight, low-cut dress. With her veil removed, she looks like a normal teenager.

Indeed, Arwa would almost be a normal teenager if it weren't for some of the things she says, such as: "Of course I want to become a politician" and "I think Westerners are human beings, too." There's nothing wrong, she adds, with cultures having differences.

The bedroom Arwa shares with her sister is furnished with pink-and-white built-in furniture. Stuffed animals lie on the beds. Arwa says she was 16 when she decided to join the Brotherhood. She had just started a program in media studies at the university, she explains, and she had reached a point in her life where she was asking herself what kind of a woman she wanted to become, what kind of a life she wanted to lead, and what her role in society should be.

Arwa then started reading about many things -- about the socialists, about Mubarak's National Democratic Party and about secularism in general. "But I didn't understand how religion and politics were supposed to be separated." Islam, Arwa says, is all-encompassing. "Everything I do and everything I am comes from Islam," she says.

Arwa then began reading the literature of Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna. "I immediately fell in love with his ideology," Arwa says. She also read the writings of other Islamists. "But they are so strict, so extremist," she says. "They ban all things Western from their lives, and for them everything is evil." Arwa says ideologies like the latter do not conform to reality, adding: "You don't have to live as if you were in the Middle Ages to be a good Muslim."

She pulls a tattered book about the principles of the Brotherhood from the shelf. As she flips through its pages, she says the book was the only thing she managed to keep. "The state security agents searched our house a few times," she says, "and took everything else with them."

A Life of Contradictions

Arwa opens her pink closets and pulls out a few evening dresses -- and a wedding dress. "I love dressing up," she says before noting that she'll be getting married on Friday.

The man she will marry is her second fiancé. "The first one couldn't accept that I want a career in addition to a family," she says, "and that I want to travel and be politically active." Even before they were married, the first fiancé demanded that she spend more time at home. So she ended the relationship.

Arwa says her new fiancé is different. The pair met at work. She told him right away that she didn't intend to give everything up. She says she told him that she just might fly to Qatar on the morning after their wedding to attend a conference. "I think he didn't dare say anything about it," she says.

Arwa is on Facebook, she tweets and she blogs, and she has up to 100,000 readers. "Here," she says, pointing to her photo on the computer screen. It's a snapshot of Arwa in Gaza with a woman wearing a white veil. They are both laughing. "Hamas," says Arwa, with a smile.

Then she looks a little shocked, as if it had just occurred to her that perhaps a friendship with someone from Hamas might actually be too radical. It is one of those moments when the veils of the Muslim Sisters are lifted just a little, revealing what might be the hidden contradictions between their tolerant words and intolerant views.

During the protests on Tahrir Square, Arwa tweeted sentences like: "Go to Tahrir Square … either you will be liberated or you will become martyrs … Death is not the end, I swear to you by God." On Feb. 11, the day Mubarak was toppled, she congratulated the "entire Islamic world."

When asked how she envisions her future in the new Egypt, Arwa says she wantes "to take advantage of (her) potential," adding that this is particularly important for women now. She wants to return to the university and get another degree because she feels that she was short-changed under the old educational system. Arwa says she also wants to become a good mother and a good Muslim. And, depending on what sort of a political position the Brotherhood can offer her, she says she wants "to be part of it," that she wants to help shape this new society. "And maybe when I'm 30," she adds, "I'll even get a seat in parliament."

Imagining an Islamic Democracy

On Saturday, March 19, many Egyptians -- including women -- voted in a referendum on their new constitution. The referendum was over whether to implement a few amendments to the constitution, such as one setting an eight-year term limit for future presidents, one requiring parliamentary approval for the emergency laws that Mubarak shamelessly exploited and one that allows political independents to run for president.

Yet another goal of the referendum was to bring about new elections more quickly. Since other parties haven't had enough time to organize themselves, this would particularly benefit the Muslim Brotherhood. For this reason, many activists in the revolution, including opposition politician Mohamed ElBaradei, called on Egyptians to reject the constitutional amendment.

Arwa says that the majority vote in favor of the referendum proves that the Egyptians really are ready for democracy. Jihan says: "This is what we have all been dreaming of," adding that the vote's outcome shows that Egyptians want to quickly move forward on the path to democracy.

The three Muslim Sisters' idea of democracy is that it can be an intermediate stage along the road to Egypt's becoming an Islamic society. The question is: How democratic will such a society ultimately be?

The revolution gave Arwa, Jihan and Zahraa both a voice and an idea of what democracy can mean. But it did not change their priorities in life. Indeed, being a good mother, a good wife and a good Muslim remain their top goals in life. They might want to be emancipated -- but only to the extent that Islam can tolerate it. They are women fighting for rights, but they are not interested in fighting for them against men.

The Comfort of Certainty

It's late afternoon in Cairo. The city shimmers under a yellowish haze of smog and sunlight. Zahraa El-Shater, the daughter of the freed political prisoner, has allowed herself to be swept along by a parade of his jubilant supporters. They tore through the Cairo streets at high speeds, the men hanging out of the cars to wave at onlookers, honking their horns and cheering like football fans after their team has won an important match.

They park the car in Nasr City, the district of Cairo where Zahraa lives in a high-rise apartment building. They are expected. Someone has managed to hang chains of colorful lights on every floor, and there are plastic flowers at the entrance. Zahraa and her younger sister, wearing a black full-body veil, stand in front of the door, as if to defend against intruders.

They talk about how happy they are, and they praise their freedom and their faith. They say that everything a devout person could ever hope to know can be found in the Koran. From under her black veil, Zahraa's sister draws a comparison with a washing machine. "If you buy one and it doesn't work, you'll read the manual," she says, "because you know that the manufacturer of this washing machine knows how it works." The same thing applies to Allah, the creator, she says. "He is the one who made us all." The Koran, she says, is the manual Allah gave to mankind.

As the two women speak, the men gather around Zahraa's father on the street below. They have just returned from the mosque. As they beat drums and form circles around the parking cars, the jubilant men say the kinds of things that make them seem so undemocratic to many people. "The Koran is our constitution," they chant, "and jihad is our path."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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