A government led by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) provides a unique opportunity for the promotion of women’s rights in Egypt. To mark a successful chapter in the struggle for greater rights for women, religious and secular civil society actors must unite and build on their strong common ground.
Women have challenged the norm of female marginalization in Arab society with their active participation in the Arab Spring, chiefly in the 2011 Egyptian revolution. After parliamentary elections brought the formerly banned MB to power, the revolutionary optimism around women’s rights waned. But, the long history of the MB is rife with examples of their ability to evolve, and keep pace with the changing norms of society. This flexibility can be harnessed to achieve greater rights for women under the MB-government.
There is a vast divide between secular and religious civil society advocates of women’s rights. Secular NGOs use international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as their guiding principles and believe any Islamic interpretation of rights for women harm equality.
Faith-based organizations believe that solutions to women’s rights issues should be addressed through a revival in Islamic thought and particularly, a new interpretation of the Quran and sunnah; one that does not reflect the patriarchal norms of Arab society. They see secular NGOs as pushing a Western agenda and promoting un-Islamic ideals. Their quest is to achieve justice for women.
But, there is much common ground between the two camps in their demands for women’s rights, like rights of women to have access to education, work, and political participation. Among these demands, the call for greater political participation for women holds great promise as a means for collaboration between secular and religious advocates. The MB offers three key elements for the promotion of women’s political participation.
First, women have played a central role in the success of the MB. One of the greatest strengths of the MB is their well-established and highly efficient network of charitable organizations. Over the years, Muslim Sisterhood, the women’s chapter of the party, have proved itself to be instrumental in reaching out to the most impoverished parts of society. The Muslim Sisterhood’s ability to reach out to other women through the charity network is indispensable especially when addressing the needs of deeply conservative sections of society where gender segregation is the norm. In other words, to maintain the party’s greatest strength for winning elections, the MB relies heavily on the women within its ranks.
Second, the MB is under growing internal pressure to allow greater political participation for women. Until the January 2011 revolution brought them to power, the MB endured cycles of violent repression by the regime. It was a long-standing party policy to not put the Sisters in the limelight for fear of their safety during cycles of repression. With the party now in power that threat has been removed. The policy of preventing women from assuming positions of leadership within the party is now being questioned both by the members of the Sisterhood and civil society at large. Given that women constitute almost half of the Arab population today, any movement aiming for electoral success can no longer afford to ignore the voice of women.
Third, despite the conservative base of the MB, they have proven time and again to be thorough pragmatists. Although recent events taking place in Egypt might seem to suggest otherwise, one must survey the long history of the party. The key historical lesson for successive generations of MB members has been the link between adaptability and survival. As explained by Mona el- Ghobashy, a Middle East expert, “Over the past quarter century, the [MB] has morphed from a highly secretive, hierarchical, antidemocratic organization led by anointed elders into a modern, multi-vocal political organization steered by educated, savvy professionals not unlike activists of the same age in rival Egyptian political parties.” The MB can adapt their policies to reflect changing attitudes in society. Greater political participation for women in Egypt can be achieved if secular and religious actors unite to demonstrate such a change of attitude in society.
To conclude, many worry that the rise of the MB as an Islamic party will turn back the tide for women’s rights in Egypt. In reality, however, the MB offers a new wave of opportunities, provided secular and Islamic feminists join forces. The new political climate, combined with the MB’s history of pragmatism and their ability to adapt, creates immense momentum for the advancement of women’s rights in Egypt.