The Women of the Muslim Brotherhood
When Egypt took part in the Arab Spring Revolution, women made sure they were a part of the mobilization. But how did this revolutionary, political opportunity shape Islamist women’s political participation, and how did their participation shape not only how they organized themselves within the revolution but also what strategies they used as well?
Anwar Mhajne, a 2016-2017 Taft Dissertation Fellow, is answering that question through her research. “My dissertation will examine the mobilizing strategies of the Muslim Sisterhood in Egypt during various regime changes between 2010 and 2014,” she said. “I compare the Sisters’ framing strategies and medium of organizing before, during, and after the Morsy regime.
“During times of unrest, between 2010 and 2014, members of the Muslim Sisterhood, the women’s wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, were active in the popular resistance movement,” Mhajne continued. “However, when a brief institutionalization of regime was introduced, they were forced to be active in the formal and/or informal political arenas depending on the political opening or closure of the political system.”
Mhjane’s research was inspired by the tremendous participation of women in the Arab Spring in general and the Egyptian revolution in particular. Women began participating in the revolution the day the riots started. News articles say riots started the Arab Spring Revolution on December 17, 2010, in Tunisia, when Mohamed Bouazizii, a vegetable salesman, set fire to himself. Bouazizii, 26, did not have a permit to sell his vegetables. Police seized his scales and produce. Without the cart, Bouazizii could no longer make a living to support his family. In an act of protest, he set himself on fire (Ryan, 2011). After this event, the protests spread to other Tunisian and then to other Middle Eastern countries. A month later, an Egyptian man, set himself on fire near the Egyptian Parliament (Jones, 2011). By this time, the protests had read reached Egypt. During that time, the Arab Revolution spread like wildfire through several of the Middle Eastern countries, including Libya, Egypt, Syria, Algeria, and Bahrain.
As Arabs organized and protested, Mhajne was in Israel. “I was watching the news constantly,” she said. “I was expecting democracy.” Most Arab countries were ruled by some form of constitutional monarchy or dictatorship. Mhajne, and many others, thought that by rebelling against these oppressive governments, democratic governments would start appearing along the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf coastlines. In Egypt, Mubarak’s authoritative reign spanned almost 30 years, and each election year, the National Democratic Party, the dominant, political party, voted for the same president. Although other political parties were allowed, the authoritarian regime kept them under their control, and a lot of Egyptian voices went unheard. Many thought if Mubarak’s regime toppled, it would be replaced by a better, more-democratic government.
Another reason some thought the Middle Eastern countries might start favoring more democratic governments is due to women’s participation in the revolution. Women participated in marches. They watched over the streets, trying to protect houses and apartments from vandalism. They organized watch groups. Many mobilized demonstrations. Their use of social media was one of the fundamental ways the revolution had been so organized.
Mhajne said she decided to focus on the Sisterhood, because their “organizing during the various transitions in Egypt, between 2010 and 2014, provides a significant case to address the gap in literature that examines women’s organizing and its interactions with the shifting political structure.”
She adds, “The political opportunity structure, as currently theorized, does not pay sufficient attention to how the gendered institutions of the political opportunity structures and the shifts in these structures affect women’s ability to act politically. The majority of mainstream literature does not consider women’s participation and interaction with institutions during transition periods to democracy.” Moreover, she said, “little scholarly work has been written on the Muslim Sisterhood and its activities. Focusing on their activities will expand and enrich the existing literature on Islamist women’s activism in countries such as Iran, Morocco, and Turkey. It will also inform how Islamist women’s political actions are heightened or diminished under different political governments.” In addition, this research will help shed light on Islamist women’s agency.
The Muslim Brotherhood founder, Hassan al-Banna, created the first women’s division, the Muslim Sisters Group, in 1933. He initially wanted the group to have their own leadership. However, due to religious arguments within the group, the Muslim Sisters was made to be a subgroup of the Muslim Brotherhood. After the assassination of Hassan al-Banna in 1949, the Muslim Sisters, even though still not fully integrated in the Muslim Brotherhood's internal structure, started taking on more of a supportive role for the Brotherhood. This was due to the change in the political climate in which the Egyptian government increased its intolerance of the Muslim Brotherhood. This threatened the continuity of the group's movement. According to Jihan al-Halawfi, a senior activist, “[W]hat kept the movement from collapse at the time was the fact that women moved quickly to take on the job when men were imprisoned or sent into long exiles” (Abdel-Latif, 2008, p. 4). The Sisters’ assistance to the Brotherhood and its activities was mainly constrained to providing “moral and financial support to the families of the detainees, a task that would remain one of the key undertakings of the women’s division as the movement continued to be the target of the state’s wrath” (Abdel-Latif, 2008, 4).
So far, Mhajne discovered that the Muslim Brotherhood is opening up more to women’s importance in the political process, but the accepting of women’s political participation is not happening in Egypt. It is happening in Turkey, because most of the Muslim Brotherhood members have been exiled to Turkey. After the initial elections, with Mubarak out of office, the Muslim Brotherhood had gained a lot of property. Egyptians voted in the Freedom and Justice Party into the government, including having Mohamed Morsy, the party’s leader, as president. However, it was not long before the Egyptians became disappointed with the progress being made. Their disappointment, backed with the Egyptian military’s outrage at some of Morsy’s actions, caused the military threw Morsy out of office. In December 2013, the then-interim government, declared the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization. Many members fled to other countries. Turkey was among those countries.
In Turkey, Mhajne explained the culture and government institutions there are more open to women participating in the political process. As a result, the Muslim Brotherhood has also become more open to having its female members as part of certain committees within the Brotherhood’s internal structure. One reason due to the lack of female participation is Egypt’s one-party system, which had been established in Egypt after the 1952 revolution which overthrew the British occupation. At the beginning of this system, women only participated through their familial, male ties. Women had no part in the decision-making process. For this reason, barely any woman participated in the political system. The multi-party system was reintroduced in Egypt in 1976, but by that time, female political participation was already rare. While in Turkey, it is much more common for women to participate in the electoral system. In its 2015 election, 96 women won seats to Turkey’s Grand National Assembly, meaning that 17 percent of the assembly consisted of women (Lyons, 2015). During Mubarak’s last years, women only held 12 percent of the seats in parliament (Coleman, 2013). Therefore, women have an easier time getting involved in politics while in Turkey than those in Egypt.
To complete her research, Mhajne has also been collecting and analyzing social media texts and images that had been used to organize the Egyptian protests, because this media played a vital role in the Arab Spring Revolution. She will also collect texts, from between 2010 to 2014, from other media sources such as Egyptian newspapers. She also plans on interviewing Sisters who participated in the Arab Spring activities.
 Egyptians voted in Mohamed Morsi as president during Egypt’s first popular, democratic election and after the fall of Mubarak’s regime.
 Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak served as Egypt’s fourth president from 1981 to 2011. Before becoming president, he had served in the Egyptian army.
 The Freedom and Justice Party is the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Abdel-Latif, O. (2009, April 14). Sisters in the Muslim Brotherhood. Comon Ground News Service.
Abdel-Latif, O. (2013, March 28). V for vendetta. Al-Ahram.
Abu-Zayd, G. (2002). In Search of Political Power -- Women in Parliament in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. Stockholm: International IDEA.
Agence France Presse. (2014, September 16). Exiled Brotherhood leaders would be welcome in Turkey: Erdogan. Arab News.
Al Arabiya News. (2012, October 3). Female member runs for chairmanship of Muslim Brotherhood's party. Al Arabiya News.
Berlinger, J. (2012, October 8). Meet the Woman Hoping to Lead Egypt's Most Poweful Islamist Party. Business Insider.
CNN Library. (2016, June 23). Mohamed Morsy Fast Facts. Retrieved from CNN.Com: http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/28/world/meast/mohamed-morsy---fast-facts/
Coleman, I. (2013, October 4). Quotas and Women in Egyptian Politics. Retrieved from Council on Foreign Relations: http://blogs.cfr.org/coleman/2013/10/04/quotas-and-women-in-egyptian-politics/
Di Giovanni, J. (2013, December 19). Enter the Muslim Sisterhood. Newsweek.
Gray, J. (2012, March 29). A Muslim Sister in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-Feminist Friend or Foe? Retrieved from Ms. blog Magazine: http://msmagazine.com/blog/2012/03/29/a-muslim-sister-in-egypts-muslim-brotherhood-feminist-friend-or-foe/
Hamed, E. (2013, November 20). Egypt's 'Muslim Sisterhood' moves from social work to politics. Al-Monitor.
Lyons, K. (2015, June 8). Record number of women elected to Turkish parliament. The Guardian.
McVeigh, T. (2013, March 30). How Egypt's radical rulers crush the lives and hopes of women. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/mar/18/muslim-brotherhood-rejects-egyptian-womens-rights
Naber, N. (2011). Women and the Arab Spring: Human Rights from the Ground Up. Retrieved August 22, 2016, from Michigan Library Digital Collections: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/i/iij/11645653.0001.104/--women-and-the-arab-spring-human-rights-from-the-ground-up?rgn=main;view=fulltext
Nisrawi, S. (2002, June 25). Islamist woman says Egypt blocks campaign. United Press International.
Nowaira, A. (2013, March 18). The Muslim Brotherhood has shown its contempt for Egypt's women. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/mar/18/muslim-brotherhood-rejects-egyptian-womens-rights
Rice, X., Marsh, K., Finn, T., Sherwood, H., Chrisafis, A., & Booth, R. (2011, April 22). Women have emerged as key players in Arab Spring. the Guardian.
Ryan, Y. (2011, January 20). The tragic life of a street vendor: Al Jazeera travels to the birthplace of Tunisia's uprising and speaks to Mohamed Bouazizi's family. Al Jazeera.
Smith-Spark, L. (2013, July 4). The rise and rapid fall of Egypt's Mohamed Morsy. CNN.
The Media Line Staff. (2010, February 19). Egypt Claims to Have Uncovered Secret 'Muslim Sisterhood'. Retrieved from IkhwanWeb: http://www.ikhwanweb.com/article.php?id=23257