Photo Gallery: Defining the Modern Muslim Woman in Egypt


The Muslim Sisterhood Visions of Female Identity in the New Egypt

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.
Von Dialika Krahe

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.

Visions of Freedom

Until now, the Muslim Brothers moved in the shadows of society, while the women moved in the shadows of the Muslim Brotherhood. Zahraa belongs to a generation of women who have known nothing but life under the regime, who have never known what it means to be both an Islamist and free.

Now in her mid-30s, Zahraa was 5 years old when Mubarak came to power. "It's either us or them," Mubarak argued to make the Egyptians afraid of the Islamists. "For my entire life," Zahraa says, "I was so busy trying to get my men out of prison and keeping the family together that I didn't even manage to go to the weekly Brotherhood meetings. Now, everything will be different."

When asked how she envisions the new Egypt and how free, tolerant and pluralistic it should be, Zahraa says society was "shallow" under the old regime. "Life consisted of nothing but eating, marrying and running off to work," she adds. As she sees it, many Egyptian women wear the veil and go to prayers as if it were part of some daily exercise program, but without really living their faith.

Zahraa says that she dreams of a civilized Islamic society, of clean streets, honesty, a country without corruption and, most of all, better education. "There was once a horrifying study in which they tested school graduates," she says. "Most of them couldn't even read properly."

A Woman's Place

When asked about the women of Egypt, Zahraa initially says: "I don't distinguish between men and women. They complete each other. We were both on Tahrir Square, men and women, right?" But then she says: "Women don't even want to do the same things that men do." It is in their nature, she adds, to have children, to be more emotional and to be better-suited for social responsibilities.

Indeed, Zahraa is a long way from emancipation and resistance against men. She says her father was in poor health while in prison. In the summers, in particular, he suffered from the heat in his non-air-conditioned cell. "I wanted us to suffer with him," she says, so she made her family go without the air-conditioning in their apartment. Vicarious suffering is apparently also a woman's duty.

Being banned from politics led the Brotherhood to become particularly active in society. It operated hospitals, educational establishments, kindergartens and soup kitchens. In doing so, it gained many supporters.

The Muslim Brothers were only permitted to serve in the Egyptian parliament as independent. Many were kept under surveillance, followed and arrested. Since the women of the Brotherhood were not considered dangerous, they could operate below the government's radar.

This gave the Sisters a more important role. They kept the organization alive, caring for the families of prisoners, organizing protest marches and raising money for lawyers.

They were not permitted to be political leaders. "It wasn't possible," Zahraa says, "because of state security. The idea that a woman could be arrested is taboo for the group." Besides, she says, many Muslim Brothers feel that it's better for women to perform their "natural" duties, such as being a mother.

A Veteran of the Older Days

The crowd pushes Zahraa's father toward the street, and he ducks into an unfamiliar car. Zahraa pushes her way toward the car. "Who are they? What do they want?" she shouts. She slips her arm through the open car window and tries to grab his hand. "I thought it was a state security car," she says. Old fears die hard.

Zahraa El-Shater, the daughter of Khairat El-Shater, is well-known among the Muslim Sisters. Jihan al-Halafawy, 59, the eldest of the three Muslim Sisters, also knows her story. "Zahraa is like a daughter," she says. Jihan attended the university in Alexandria with Zahraa's father. Since her husband was also in prison for many years, she can understand Zahraa's fears.

The day before, Jihan and thousands of other protesters stood on Tahrir Square to call upon the transitional government to address the unfulfilled demands of the people. Now she is sitting in her apartment in Cairo. On the small tables next to her are a yellow flyswatter and a rolled-up prayer rug.

Jihan is the director of a cultural center. She comes from the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, where she attended university, met her husband and joined the Brotherhood. She eventually became the first Muslim Sister to run for a seat in parliament.

Jihan was already in the group before Mubarak came to power. Unlike Zahraa, she knows what it means to be an active Sister and to still be free. Jihan laughs a lot. When she speaks, her cheeks are pushed upward and her eyes become narrower. She has fond memories of the days when she joined the Brotherhood. Her memories are a window into the past, but they might also hold clues to the future of the Muslim Sisters.

The Turning Point of 1981

It happened after the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, she says. Then-President Anwar Sadat had issued an amnesty for the Muslim Brotherhood, and many political prisoners were released. For the first time in a long time, the group could speak in public. A few Brothers gave a lecture at the University of Alexandria, and Jihan, a young student who had just started wearing a veil, immediately felt attracted to their ideas.

After becoming a member, Jihan organized meetings, cultural events and debates. She was responsible for the Brotherhood's women's group at the university. Its goal was to spread the thoughts of the Brotherhood and to provide Islamic education to the public. "We were young," she says, "and we wanted to change the country." There were no government restrictions at the time, Jihan says, comparing it to the kind of freedom young Muslim Sisters are now experiencing for the first time.

When Sadat made peace with Israel, the Brotherhood rejected his decision, and some of its member became radicalized. In 1981, Sadat was assassinated by men thought to be former Muslim Brothers. That same year, Mubarak came to power and Jihan's husband was arrested.

Since then, her husband has been arrested 11 more times. Though she had six children to look after, she still managed to organize protests and mobilize the media. Soon, she became a public figure. At the time, Egyptian society and the West viewed the Islamists as a backward, narrow-minded organization with structures unfriendly to women. "We wanted to prove to them that the opposite was true," Jihan says.

A Would-Be Pioneer

In 2000, Jihan's activism eventually led her becoming the first woman to campaign for a seat in parliament. Critics say she was merely a token woman.

At the time, one of her biggest worries was the fact that it just wasn't common to have women debating men in public. Likewise, many thought it was inappropriate to depict a woman's face on posters.

Realizing these problems, Jihan went to visit Islamic scholars and asked them what she should do. When they told her that the Koran did not forbid such things, she threw herself into her work. Though her husband was locked up and her campaign team was arrested, she still won the first round of the election. Nevertheless, she wasn't allowed to assume her seat after officials claimed there had been voting irregularities.

When asked if she would run for office again today, Jihan says: "I wouldn't want to rule out the idea, but I would rather see the new generation move to the fore."

Today's Atypical Muslim Sister

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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