A Muslim Sister in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood–Feminist Friend or Foe?

Azza El Garf, a prominent figure in the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, offers a profile in political contradiction. She shares her party’s family-first view of a woman’s place, but at the same time plays a pioneering role in the minuscule minority–just 1 percent–of women serving in the country’s post-revolution houses of parliament.

“People here think women can be a doctor, go to university, be a teacher or an engineer,” El Garf said in a recent interview in Arabic conducted through a translator. “But people still think ‘women are no good at politics.’ We want to change this view.”

She condemns the notorious “virginity tests” that military officers and doctors are accused of perpetrating on a group of female protesters in March 2011. But she disagrees with Egypt’s 2008 ban on female [genital] cutting. “It is a personal decision and each woman can decide based on her needs. If she needs it, she can go to a doctor,” El Garf said, adding that the Muslim Brotherhood refers to the practice as beautification plastic surgery. She was adamant that it was a woman’s choice, and hers alone, to have the outlawed procedure and should be done in consultation with a trained medical professional.

El Garf insisted that Islamists will uphold women’s rights. But she also said divorce had become too easy. The comment is likely to reinforce expectations that Islamists will seek to roll back women’s divorce rights, as Hoda Badran, chairwoman of the newly resurrected Egyptian Feminist Union, warned in a January interview with Women’s eNews. (In 2000, Egypt passed a law allowing Muslim women a no-fault divorce for which they can file in court without needing permission from their husbands or male relatives.)

“Family is the most important part of life,” El Garf said. She said the husband’s job was to feed his wife and care about his family because together they are one. “The woman’s job is to make him happy,” she added. “In Western society everybody is an individual. That system doesn’t work here.”

A mother of seven and a graduate of Cairo University with a degree in social work, El Garf has been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood for 32 years. In that time, she said, her dreams of holding political office were never stifled by her party or her religion. She said Islam, which preaches equality between the sexes as well as traditional gender roles in marriage, promotes the education of women and their place in the work force.

Her party, however, places limits on what kinds of political participation it deems acceptable for women.

Last December, while women’s rights leaders recruited thousands to a demonstration in Cairo against sexual harassment and military violence against women, her Islamist party said the march shamed female demonstrators, who should have let husbands, brothers or fathers defend their rights.

At a March 8 gathering for her own party’s committee on women, El Garf and another female member of parliament from her party fended off suggestions by critics in the media that women have no real role in the People’s Assembly due to their small number. The lower house currently has 11 female members, the upper house has five. Just six women have been nominated for the 100-member constitution drafting committee.

El Garf said that reserving seats for women–instituted in the 2010 parliament elections and then annulled — amounted to “decoration” because they were reserved for “regime puppets” chosen by [former Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.

Egypt’s 16 female parliamentarians, she said, have legitimacy that many of the women in the last parliament did not because they were chosen by “the people.” She expressed confidence that women’s numbers in parliament will grow as Egyptians see more and more capable women taking active roles in politics and in their communities.

Eric Trager, an American fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that women have little sway in El Garf’s political contingent. “The Muslim Brotherhood is a mostly male-dominated organization where all of the key decisions are made by bodies that are entirely comprised by men,” he said. “The Muslim ‘Sisters’ … they are not involved in the decision-making processes.”

Muslim Brotherhood members have angrily opposed plans to resurrect the National Women’s Council, previously led by former First Lady Suzanne Mubarak. The council was shut down after a fire ripped through its offices last year and was often criticized by human rights activists as political window dressing. The Freedom and Justice Party, by contrast, saw it as a potent threat to family life and another arm of the overthrown regime.

El Garf stands with her party on this. She said a state-backed family council would serve Egyptian women better than a women’s council.

Excerpted from Women’s eNews.

Photo of Azza El Garf by Jessica Gray


  1. I am torn on how I feel about the genital mutilation issue. Obviously it should never be done on a child, or a woman who isn’t willing, but perhaps adult women should have the choice of whether or not to follow this tradition, as repugnant as we in the West see it. Then again, I think making it legal in any way might open the doors for it to be abused. Parents could bribe doctors to do it well before the child becomes an adult, or grown women could be coerced into it by their husbands, their families or society in general.

  2. I say she’s a foe. She’s one of those women who has carved out a niche for herself by adopting dominant patriarchal attitudes (see the book Post-Backlash Feminism by Kellie Bean for a good discussion of these anti-feminists in feminist clothing, i.e., “Anti-feminism isn’t merely about discrediting a woman-centered politic, then, but about maintaining a man-centered ideology that enables and rewards anti-feminist careers,” p. 11). She’ll work to roll back everything Egyptian feminists have fought so hard for over the course of the 20th century.

    Regarding FGM, I’ve studied this issue closely and have published on it, and I think repealing the anti-FGM law in Egypt would be a disaster. In Egypt, it’s most often done on young girls, without their consent, and medicalizing the procedure doesn’t make it any less traumatic. If a woman says she wants the procedure done, then it’s likely due to cultural/familial pressure or the fact that she’s internalized the patriarchal b-s that her body is wrong, disgusting, and must be controlled. FGM is not something that should be defended as “cultural” and thus out of bounds for criticism or legislation. It’s a violation of women and girl’s human rights to bodily integrity. Egyptian feminists like Dr. Nawal el Saadawi fought long and hard – over decades – to get the legislation passed. This is not simply an issue that Westerners have sensationalized (though that has happened); it’s a custom that women from FGM-practicing countries themselves have been working to end. The law should not only stand, but it should be enforced vigorously.

    • sumitra says:

      Thank you Kelly, for your thoughtful and well-informed analysis of why FMG is not to be tolerated on cultural grounds. Such relativism is one of the avenues to legitimate and perpetuate barbaric practices like this. I particularly agree that patriarchal norms and their internalized acceptance by women like El Garf is anti-feminist. To have her in a position of power in the new regime will set the female sex back. Kellie Bean’s quote is superb.

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