Muslim Brotherhood gives sisters the stage

But critics say its final resolutions do not suggest they intend to give women a bigger role either in the organization or in public life.

Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders 311 (R) (photo credit: Amr Dalsh / Reuters)
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders 311 (R)
(photo credit: Amr Dalsh / Reuters)
It’s been six decades since the women of the Muslim Brotherhood have gathered together, but as Egypt’s biggest Islamic movement and an emerging kingpin in the country’s politics, the movement has been keen to show a moderate face.
So, on Saturday, some 2,000 devout women from across Egypt converged on Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, Egypt's center of religious learning, for a conference informally dubbed the "Muslim Sisterhood." The auditorium was filled to capacity with white-veiled women and green flags. Nary a man was to be found, except for the principal speakers.
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"You should act in all fields -- political, social and educational," Muhammad Badie, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, told the women at an all-day conference mostly closed to the press before making it clear that he viewed their role as helpmeets. "May you assist your brothers with your vision, knowledge and suggestions."
Nevertheless, Aaliya Al-Hudeibi, a participant in the conference, told the Muslim Brotherhood website that her "pride was indescribable” as she praised the growing piety of her fellow Egyptians.  For years, she said, she was the only veiled member of the organization but now "thousands and thousands of women are veiled and face-covered."       
Analysts said the attempt to raise the profile of the sisters is mainly a public relations campaign aimed at assuaging concerns that the Brotherhood is an extremist organization bent on turning Egypt into a Muslim society, hostile to Israel and the West.
"There's talk about giving women a greater role within the Muslim Brotherhood," Gamal Abd Al-Gawad, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, told The Media Line. "But this is largely cosmetic. They won’t participate in real politics."
Banned from politics for more than half a century, the Brotherhood has set up a political wing to run in parliamentary elections in September. The movement is regarded as the best financed and organized in the democracy emerging in Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was ousted from office earlier this year, worrying its liberal and secular rivals.
In an indication of its growing weight in Egyptian politics, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday that Washington would hold "limited" contacts with the Brotherhood. US officials will emphasize the importance of non-violence, democratic freedoms, and the rights of women and minorities, she said.
In fact, the Brotherhood has been careful not to overplay its hand. It has said it will not run a candidate in the presidential elections that will follow the parliamentary vote and is only contesting half the seats in parliament, which means that it is depriving itself of a majority even before the first ballot is cast. Observers say that another way for the Brotherhood to play moderate is on women’s issues.
While it has allowed women to run as parliamentary candidates, it has prevented women from running for president, arguing that the position was exclusively reserved for men under Islamic law. There are no female members in the Brotherhood's decision making organs – the Shura Council and the Guidance Office.
Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, said the Brotherhood has not been known to be very supportive of women, even if they were allowed to run for office. 
"By definition, you can't be part of the Muslim Brotherhood if you're a sister," he told The Media Line.
The Brotherhood’s first women’s division, the Muslim Sisters Group, was created in 1932, four years after the movement was founded by Hassan Al-Bana. But women were traditionally kept behind the scenes, ostensibly out of fear they would be subjected to arrest and abuse by the police during the years in which the movement was outlawed.
The Brotherhood first nominated a woman for parliament in the elections of 2000, and did so again in 2005 and 2010, although no women ever entered parliament.
But Azza Sleiman, who chairs the Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance (CEWLA), said the Brotherhood was only using women as figureheads. On issues of concern to women the group takes no stance at all or one feminists would regard as negative. After Mubarak was forced out of office, the Brotherhood suggested segregating public transportation.
"The Brotherhood hasn’t spoken out on legal issues pertaining to personal status in Egypt," Sleiman told The Media Line. "But women have helped them maintain contact with the European Union and the outside world."
Saturday’s conference was called "The Woman: From Revolution to Awakening," but there was little in its final resolutions that suggested the Brotherhood intended to give women a bigger role either in the organization or in public life.
The conference's closing statement contained no operative decisions on political participation. It urged women to be educated about the "plots and conspiracies against Muslim and Arab women" intended to "remove them from their beliefs and values and destroy the foundations of the family,” a reference to Western-inspired ideas such as family planning and equality.
Nevertheless, Aaida Saad Ahmad, a female member of the Muslim Brotherhood, said in an interview from the conference that women are no less politically capable than men, mentioning the leadership role women played in the days of the prophet Muhammad.