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

By Dialika Krahe

The women of the Muslim Brotherhood played a supporting role in Egypt's revolution, and now they want to have a hand in shaping its democratic future. Although many wear Western clothing under their veils, use Facebook and Twitter, and talk the talk of emancipation, they still seem to be wrestling with what it means to be a modern Muslim woman.

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

Jihan, the eldest, is sitting in an armchair in her second apartment in Cairo. A flowered veil frames her red cheeks, and a glass of apple juice rests in her hand. She says that, Inshallah, even a woman could become president in the new Egypt.

Arwa, the youngest, is sitting in front of a computer outside her pink children's room in the small city of Abu Kebir, scrolling through her blog. "Mubarak is gone," she says. "When I'm old enough, I will have a seat in parliament, Inshallah."

Zahraa, who is between the two in age, is standing in the shadow of Cairo's Tora Prison. She pulls her white hijab tight around her face, as if to arm herself for the future. "Our task is to raise the nation," she says.

These are three Muslim sisters, each belonging to a different generation. Though unrelated, they are sisters in spirit, three of hundreds of thousands of women fighting for themselves and a new Egypt as part of the country's largest resistance group.

Their goal is an Islamic society. They are self-confident, and their message is clear: This is our time, too. Though we might be wearing veils, we are just as strong as the men of the Muslim Brotherhood.

God's Justice

With each day that passes since the revolution, they gain a little more power. Now a constitutional referendum has given all Egyptians -- including women -- the kind of freedoms that women like Jihan, Arwa and Zahraa had long believed impossible.

Every day since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was toppled has been a special day. But for Zahraa El-Shater, as she stands in front of the gates of the Tora Prison, this particular day is one to celebrate.

Dust sweeps through the air, and wisps of clouds hang in the sky. Zahraa is waiting for her father to be released. "This is now God's justice," she says. "He will be free, and those who did this to us will be put behind bars."

By "those," she means Mubarak and his cronies, but especially Habib el-Adly. The man who was until recently Egypt's interior minister has now been charged with corruption and sits in the cell next to her father's.

Zahraa, 34, a wife and mother of four children, is the daughter of Khairat El-Shater, the "number three" in the Muslim Brotherhood. She is a large woman with porcelain-colored skin and dark eyes. Her floor-length robe almost completely hides that she is a young woman. Her mobile phone rings nonstop. She ignores half the calls.

"You have to imagine this," she says. "My children had to witness my husband and my father being arrested and the state security service banging on the door at 2 a.m. and suddenly standing there in the apartment."

The Brotherhood's Other Half

Lined up next to her like a row of veiled soldiers are her sisters. They are wearing the hijab, the traditional head covering for Muslim women, and the niqab, the face veil that only leaves slits for the eyes. They are the other women in the Muslim Brotherhood. All have had similar experiences. Their eyes are fixed on the gate.

Zahraa has been a member of the Muslim Sisters for as long as she can remember. "It isn't like you had to apply for a membership card," she says. "We share an ideology."

The Sisterhood has been around since 1932. It is the female wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the shadowy Islamic organization that was repressed by Mubarak and is feared by the West. The group is associated with words that instill fear in the West, such as "Shariah," "jihad" and "terror."

Before the revolution, the United States classified the Brotherhood as extremist, anti-Western and anti-Israeli. But now that the old regime has fallen, it has become the strongest political force in the country and portrayed itself as a democratic organization. Despite decades of repression, the Brotherhood managed to attract hundreds of thousands of supporters, who are now prepared to play a role in shaping Egypt's future. About half of them are said to become women: daughters and mothers like Zahraa, Jihan and Arwa, who are now clamoring for a new role in society.

Freedom at First Sight

The gate opens. After being imprisoned by the Mubarak regime for four and a half years on charges of terrorism, money laundering and being a member of a terrorist organization, there is Zahraa's father. He squints as he gets his first look at freedom.

Zahraa wants to embrace him. A few tears run into her veil. But she is unable to reach him. Members of the Brotherhood have quickly surrounded him and are now shouting "Allahu akbar" ("God is great!") and "The Brotherhood is the hope of the nation." Only a few weeks ago, they would have been arrested.

On this afternoon in Cairo, they are holding up Egyptian flags, the same flags the protestors waved on Tahrir Square. Zahraa says she also attended every day of the protests. "No one in Egypt was terrorized by Mubarak more than we were," she says.

Zahraa stands on tiptoes to get a better look at her father, but there is no sign of joy in her face. She hardly manages to smile, looking more like someone in shock, someone who can't believe what she's seeing. "When I think of my father, I see him in his cell," she says, adding she has no other images of him in her head. While Zahraa's husband was behind bars for five years, her father was there for 12.

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