Feminism, Brotherhood Style

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood have their own take on women's liberation.

Mosa'ab Elshamy
Mosa'ab Elshamy

CAIRO — Azza al-Garf wants to film our interview. I don’t want her to. The parliamentarian from Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, says it’s party policy. I tell her I’ve never had another FJP politician tape an interview, and I offer to send her the audio recording I’m about to start. She refuses. Garf is obviously hesitant and wary. Egyptian liberals and the foreign press have labeled her the Michele Bachmann of Cairo for her conservative views on women. We are already off to a bad start.

As one of only nine women elected to Egypt’s lower house of parliament (out of 498 elected deputies) in the country’s first free elections in more than half a century, you’d think Garf would be at the vanguard for promoting women’s rights. Instead, she has made a splash by talking about tightening Egypt’s already stringent divorce laws, rolling back the ban on female genital mutilation, and reportedly denying that sexual harassment exists in Egypt. So it appears she’s learned a thing or two about media snafus.

It’s actually pretty awkward. How does one woman say to another: "Hey, are you super excited to curb women’s rights?" And so we sit across from each other on black leather couches in the FJP office in a well-to-do satellite city of Cairo called Sixth of October, Garf’s constituency, debating whether a dumpy man in a dumpy suit can film us. After a while it turns out it’s not FJP policy — it’s Garf’s policy, and I suspect it’s a new one.

Garf has a lot to prove, so perhaps she’s right to be nervous. Many Egyptians don’t believe women make effective politicians. The weight of generations of sexual oppression rest on her shoulders — and she knows it. I finally relent after negotiating an agreement that they will film only Garf, and the camera starts rolling. Garf names the stakes without being prompted. "The success of the women this time paves the way for other women in future parliaments," she tells me.

Garf looks almost regal — a cascading white headscarf frames her smooth face — and she holds eye contact while confidently reciting the party line. She could be one of the Brotherhood’s best assets at a time when all of its actions are under a microscope.

But after my hour with her, I have more questions than answers. From the outside, Garf appears to be a curious contradiction: a female role model who wants to make life more difficult for other women. Sure, she’s not saying anything that the Muslim Brotherhood hasn’t said for ages, but the ideas seem to be an uncomfortable fit for Garf, a working mother who took a risk, ran for office, and won. But more than anything, it’s just strange to hear the patriarchal party line coming from a woman’s mouth.

For Garf, though, there’s no contradiction at all. For her, and the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole, adhering to a strict interpretation of Islam is the right thing for everyone. Period. What she wants for women, at first glance, doesn’t seem that different from what other Egyptian feminists have called for. When I ask her what she hopes for women in Egypt, Garf is quick to respond: "I wish she would be more insistent to take part in the political life — to make sure her vote is not rigged and her demands are not ignored. She should be developed in all aspects: health, economic, and education" — but then comes the kicker — "and most importantly taking care of her family. Our families are the future of our country."

Garf joined the Muslim Brotherhood at 15, where she met and became enamored with Zainab al-Ghazali, the Brotherhood’s most famous female leader. Ghazali, a prominent writer and organizer for the Brotherhood when it suffered through some of its worst years of repression in the 1960s, encouraged her gender to adopt a strict interpretation of Islam into their daily lives and celebrate traditional roles, while simultaneously preaching that religion gave women distinct rights and that husbands should support, not thwart, women’s aspirations. For her efforts, Ghazali was imprisoned and severely tortured by President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime. Garf is one of her present-day disciples, and her views were fully forged in the crucible of the conservative world of the Muslim Brothers.

Garf married at 18 — to Badr Mohamed Badr, now a famous Brotherhood figure in his own right — and received her college diploma while raising her children. She was a working mother. "Me and my husband, we shared the same views and principles and coordinated a lot. We shared responsibility [for our children], and I had people able to help me at home," she says simply of balancing a working mother’s demands. She also served faithfully in the Brotherhood’s women’s contingent, a group tasked with imbuing other women with the group’s conservative ideology.

Garf ran in the 2010 parliamentary elections, the last ones held under deposed President Hosni Mubarak. The ballot was heavily rigged, and she — along with pretty much everyone in the Brotherhood — lost. But she claimed her electoral revenge in the 2011 vote. That election, Garf tells me proudly, "was the first time when a woman was able to move with men and talk to them about their issues. The image of women in the past election was usually decorative, provided by the regime, but this time we actually went to villages and heard women from all classes."

When I ask her about her role as a woman in parliament, she refuses to be pigeonholed by her gender. "I don’t restrict my role as a woman; it is broader than that," she says calmly. "I have to face all the problems Egypt is encountering now, especially in my district, including those facing Egyptian women."

She quickly plows through the Brotherhood politician’s manual about the biggest problems facing Egypt being the economy and the continued presence of the military and the Mubarak holdover cabinet in the day-to-day governing of the country. Then we get to the hard part: the hot-button issue of divorce. "None of these views that were in the media expressed my opinions," Garf begins. "It was a campaign waged against me after I expressed by opinion in applying the rules of sharia in the family [law]."

Garf wants to make it clear that she has nothing against women — just against the way Egypt’s divorce laws are written. They contradict Islamic law, she argues, and as such they need to be revised. "The principle itself — ‘a woman can divorce her husband’ — is not what I disagree with. In the time of the Prophet, women could get divorced, but I don’t want 7 million divorced women on the street," she continues, implying Egypt’s already stringent divorce laws aren’t strict enough. "No man’s dignity allows him to have a wife who wants to be separated to him." And there you have it.

I ask Garf: What’s the big problem with divorce? For the first time her expression changes. She’s not so serene anymore; she’s impassioned. "It is in the Quran the most despised halal [something allowed]. Divorce affects the woman’s psychology, and it disintegrates family and ruins the children’s future," she tells me heatedly. "It is only when there is no possible solution that divorce should happen, but we should not seek it."

It’s then that I realize what has been bothering me. It’s not that I find Garf’s opinions on divorce offensive, though I do. It’s that she is talking about legislating sharia now, or as quickly as possible. That’s something the Brotherhood has carefully avoided highlighting to the Western media, while duplicitously making assurances to the local media. But this is the first time I’ve spoken with an FJP member who hasn’t assured me Islamic law is 10, 20, or 30 years away. When I question Garf, she is quick to recover: "We will not apply sharia unless the people ask for it," she says.

So we turn our attention to the issue of female genital mutilation, banned by international and Egyptian law, but a common practice in Egypt originating from the Nile Valley. It is not practiced in more religious Muslim countries, like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan — yet Garf has been quoted as suggesting the laws should be rolled back and women be allowed to make their own decisions — for "beautification" purposes.

"We have enough problems more pressing than this," she says quickly. "I think it’s mainly been magnified to something unnecessary. Even when it comes to religion it’s highly debatable. People are entitled to do what suits them. We have much more pressing problems that don’t give us the luxury of dealing with this." And like a true politician she skirts the question, but her answer is obvious: There is no need for the ban, and individuals should choose, even though the procedure is usually performed on underage girls, not adult women.

But on another issue, Garf is wholly in agreement with Egyptian feminists: She enthusiastically supports women’s political emancipation and participation in politics. She’s not a crazed woman attempting to roll back hard-fought gains in women’s rights, but a well-spoken politician toeing her party’s line. The contradiction is a bemusing one — a strong female in the context of a movement whose ideology is wholly patriarchal. Women, after all, can’t vote in the Brotherhood’s internal elections.

When I ask Garf about it, she tells me women in the Brotherhood are "actually very successful and very effective in society." She points to Ghazali’s torture at the hands of Nasser as the reason women kept a low profile in the organization — to protect them from being arrested or harassed. Before the revolution, she tells me, she and her husband slept with a packed suitcase by the door in case it came time to disappear. "After the revolution there’s more freedom to work. Hopefully there will be much more development for their [women’s] role and expansion," she says.

I tell Garf it has been over a year since the revolution, and still women in the Muslim Brotherhood can’t vote. She smiles broadly and flashes her inner Betty Friedan. "When we take Egypt toward stability, hopefully this development will cover the whole segment of the country, including the Brotherhood. Inshallah."

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