Egypt: the ‘sisterhood’ revolution

Sonia Farid

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- What kind of nonsense is that? I said women of the Muslim Brotherhood must take part in the demonstration. Why don’t they want to comply?

- They are concerned about harassment. It is a matter of chastity for them.

- It is not for nothing that I am ordering them to take part in the demonstration and take their toddlers with them so that the police would not attack the demonstration.

- Excuse me, but who is supposed to protect who? Women are supposed to protect men or men are supposed to protect women?

- Jihad is the duty of both men and women. We do not get husbands for these women and educate their children so that they would come up with lame excuses when we call upon them to take part in the Jihad. Women who refuse to join the demonstrations must leave their husbands’ houses and go back to their parents'.

This is the translation of a scene from an Egyptian TV drama of a dialogue between the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood and a senior member of the group. This drama was released during the Mubarak era, so it might be considered as yet another attempt to tarnish the image of the Brotherhood, an accusation that was leveled by several of the group’s members against the writer. However, while Brotherhood sympathizers thought he was too harsh, Brotherhood critics thought he was too lenient. Neither of the two camps, however, paid much attention to this particular scene, until it was appeared in real life three years later.

Life imitating art

When “sisters,” the name given to female members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were recently killed while they were taking part in a demonstration that supported ousted president Mohamed Mursi, it was expected that group leaders would point fingers at supporters of the June 30 “coup” as well as the police and the army.

The Brotherhood’s concept of equality is contingent upon the extent to which it can serve their ends.

Sonia Farid

What came as a surprise was the reaction of some young members who accused the leaders of sending those women to their deaths, instantly bringing to mind this previously overlooked scene. For the first time, it emerged that the “sisters” never take part in demonstrations without the direct orders of the leadership. While the reason mentioned by the supreme guide in the drama (to prevent the police attacking the demonstration) could still be valid, it seems that emotional manipulation rather than the protection of the rest of the demonstrators is the real motive behind the forced participation of women in the demonstrations.

While both reasons betray the group’s scheme of using women as human shields, the second puts no value on the lives of those women and actually makes their death seem like some kind of victory for the Brotherhood because it demonizes the other party and garners more support for the victims and the camp to which they are affiliated.

Their version of “equality”

While there is no real ethical difference between using men or women as cannon fodder, it is striking how the members of the Brotherhood, including those who objected to the recent orders, assume that women have no will of their own. It is even more striking how in the above-mentioned scene the supreme guide advocates equality when he refuses to consider “jihad” a duty that is confined to men, yet he undermines the very essence of equality when he robs those women of their freedom of choice and forces them to engage in an action that is by definition voluntary.

The Brotherhood’s concept of equality is, therefore, contingent upon the extent to which it can serve their ends. Those ends apparently take precedence over other values presumably cherished by the “pious.” The foremost of these values should be to protect women from sexual assaults, to which they are likely to be subjected in such demonstrations. Even in the most “infidel” of cultures, women are always given priority in rescue operations and you only need to watch Titanic to realize that. The Brotherhood is adopting a form of equality that is too “sophisticated” to be comprehended by societies in which women have become ministers and presidents.

Double standards - sister or Egyptian?

What is even more intriguing is the distinction the Muslim Brotherhood makes between the
“sisters” and other Egyptian women, and which ironically casts those who are not “sisters” in a better light. When a female protestor who was not a member of the Brotherhood was almost stripped naked by army officers two years ago, Brotherhood leaders, who were staunch supporters of the de facto ruler of the country at the time, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, did nothing but repeat the famous phrase, “What made her go there?”

Regardless of the fact that they were laying the blame on the woman for the humiliation to which she was subjected in public because she decided to go to the protest, they implied that this woman is free to decide where to go and to bear the consequences of doing so. And so while trying to portray this protester and her like as lacking in dignity for being subjected to sexual assault, they actually endowed them with the most dignified of human qualities, free choice, which they deny their own women by forcing them to go to protests.

The Brotherhood’s reaction to the incident of the stripped woman might give the impression that since they appear to believe women should stir clear of any context that might present an affront to their chastity, they would never accept to have their women in similar situations. Yet, the recent deaths of their female members proved that this assumption was absolutely groundless. A scene in a TV drama that lasted for no more than two minutes served to explain that the exact opposite is true, and that female members of the Muslim Brotherhood are not the protected gems of magnanimous knights who would die before seeing any harm come their way.

The myth that the Muslim Brotherhood has been trying to promote about the difference between their women and the rest of Egyptian women has, therefore, been irreversibly deconstructed, to the advantage of the women they have been trying to degrade.

Women from both sides are attacked, humiliated, and even killed as a result of their involvement in activities that sadly are likely to lead to such outcomes, yet one group does so willingly, out of faith in a cause. The other participates unwillingly out of compliance with some hierarchical order that they are forced to obey. It is only when members of the second group start contemplating the difference between those two sets of concepts and make their choices based on this differentiation that the “sisters” will be able to shed off that name and realize how much more valuable it is to be called Egyptian.


Sonia Farid, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Cairo University. She is a translator, editor, and political activist. Her social work focuses on political awareness and women’s rights and her writing interests include society, politics, and security in Egypt. She took part in a number of local and international conferences and published several academic papers. She can be reached at [email protected]

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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