Azza al Garf, one of the five women elected to the post-revolutionary 500-member Egyptian Parliament, has a single book inside her Spartan office at the new suburban headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood outside Cairo, and it is the holy one. The lobby is guarded by a trio of middle-aged men with protuberant prayer calluses on their foreheads resembling large warts. The only wall decoration in the waiting area is a giant framed poster of the 10 sayings of Brotherhood founder Hasan al Banna, including the advice: “Don’t laugh a lot without a reason.”
Al Banna’s attitudes toward women, not advertised on the poster, are equally detailed and abstemious, include segregating the sexes, encouraging marriage and procreation “by all possible means,” and closing “morally undesirable ballrooms and dance halls.” Al Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s, and it has become a model around the world for Islamic parties seeking to combine secular power and theological precepts.
An engaging and attractive 47-year-old woman with high cheekbones, makeup-free flawless skin, and Angelina Jolie lips, al Garf doesn’t look like she’s ever kicked up her heels at a dance hall. A mother of seven, she works a look of extreme purity, her face framed by a nun-like, tightly wrapped white scarf trailing over her shoulders and down the back of a spotless mauve corduroy coatdress that reaches to her shoes.
Al Garf and the women of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party that is poised to run Egypt are oxymoronic creatures: culturally regressive trailblazers. Being one of five women elected to the new Parliament is a real accomplishment, since all the female candidate’s names were deliberately placed at the bottom of the ballots (they were only on the ballot in the first place because the law required it), but al Garf and her ilk dare not crow about it. One of the chief conditions of female membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is that they agree to second-place status. Women cannot vote for party leaders or serve on top committees. What they can do, and what they have been doing for decades, is educate and organize women across Egypt.
As I sat across from al Garf listening to her recite soothing party platitudes about how the Brotherhood’s main goals for Egypt were economic and civil security, I had the nagging feeling that she reminded me of someone. Then it struck me: She had much more in common with America’s female conservatives—Bachman, Palin, Schlafly—than she had with either me or the Egyptian feminist lawyers and women’s rights activists I had interviewed that morning.
The rise of the strong female politician with regressive ideas about women’s rights seems to be a global phenomenon. In Egypt, the sisters of the Muslim Brotherhood share similarities with the extreme right wing of the Republican Party including relying on the supernatural advice of a “higher power” for their political involvement and an unabashed commitment to policies that limit or reverse women’s rights. Though these women have benefitted from the notion that women are equal, they work hard to differentiate themselves from feminists and attack them whenever possible. But for a few differences—that little matter about Israel, certainly—she would find much on which to agree with her Western counterparts.
Like Bachmann and Palin, al Garf is a practicing, but definitely not professing, feminist: She’s a college-educated mother raising a big family who worked outside her home as a journalist and spent several decades devoted to hard-core political organizing of other women. Now she’s an elected political leader.
As with Bachmann, who has cited the Bible in advising women, “Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands,” for al Garf, religiosity is a full immersion that permeates every aspect of life. For years when the Brotherhood was illegal, al Garf taught groups of women in “the way” of Islam. Al Garf’s classes served as life lessons and training for future female proselytizers for the Brotherhood. Funded by infusions of hundreds of millions of dollars over the years from conservative donors in the Gulf countries, al Garf and thousands of women like her have a powerful political ground game the Tea Partiers can only look upon with awe.
Like American conservative women, al Garf doesn’t support policies that would actually improve the real lives of women in her country—political and economic empowerment, for example. She understands that the majority of Egypt’s poor women already work outside the home and must at least travel alongside men, often supporting deadbeat husbands and children, all the while swaddled in scarves and floor-length gowns—the restrictive costume a direct result of decades of social pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood and their auxiliary force, of whom al Garf is a member in good standing.
However, a major difference between these American conservative women and their Egyptian counterparts—in the U.S., Bachmann is a fringe candidate; in Egypt al Garf is in the political mainstream. As the religious parties like the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party take control, women in Egypt are facing a surge in street sexual harassment that has prompted the creation of an online community to try to talk to men about why they shouldn’t grope. Abortion is illegal except in case of danger to the mother’s life and only if three doctors sign off on that. And it’s the rare rape case that ever gets to court, given the societal punishment of female sexual victims. None of these issues are the concern of the Freedom and Justice Party, though.
Progressive Egyptian women have spent years trying to change Egypt’s inheritance law, which apportions men twice as much as women, and trying to make Egypt’s divorce laws more equitable for women. Women who want a divorce can find themselves in court for years, while men have moved on and started new families.
Al Garf thinks divorce is too easy under current law. “Egyptian women don’t need better divorce laws because Islam will teach them to work out their problems first,” as in religious couples’ counseling, she said. Once the Brotherhood has been in power for a while, “no one will want to get divorced anymore.”
Newly vocal progressives have pushed back. Thousands of women marched through Cairo in December against violence against women. But the breakdown in civil security has left women more vulnerable on the streets and more likely to stay home—which the Islamists consider to be women’s proper place anyway.
For now, the religious party’s auxiliary wing is Egyptian women’s only shot at having any female voice at all in the political process. It remains to be seen whether women like Azza al Garf will hear their hopes, or just listen to God.