Muslim Sisterhood: Can Women Have A Voice In Egypt's Islamic Revolution?

Women account for more than 21% of the Muslim Bortherhood
Women account for more than 21% of the Muslim Bortherhood
Delphine Minoui

CAIRO - The Latin word, and not just any word, jumps right out amidst the medley of Arabic writing on the classroom blackboard. "G-Spot," repeats Nehal Badie out loud from under her grey hijab.

The woman's firm tone stands in contrast with the unlikely words she uses. Some giggles break the silence in the room, which is exclusively occupied by women. Standing alongside the projector, the veiled gynecologist offers a detailed presentation in Egyptian dialect: "In bed, woman and man are equal. A woman has the right to enjoy the same sexual pleasure as a man and know her erogenous zones."

Sunken in her chair, one young Cairo woman in a niqab puts her pen down, incredulous in front of such words pronounced in a country so steeped in religious and patriarchal traditions, where women are often reduced to little more than their reproductive role. Even more unexpected is the fact that the sexual initiation class provided to new brides takes place in the second floor of a dilapidated building in the neighborhood of Gizah, near the headquarters of the local branch of the Freedom and Justice Party -- the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since Mohamed Morsi, an Ikhwan ("Brother"), was elected as Egyptian President last June, the female branch of the organization is active on all fronts: political, charitable, social, educational.

"Today, women account for more than 21% of the members. This number is higher than any of the liberal parties!" boasts Ghada Hashad, one of the active members of the female section of the party. Deliberately banned and demonized under Hosni Mubarak, the Islamist movement wants to push the development of all sorts of initiatives: literacy classes, campaigns in favor of the Constitution... not to mention these new workshops on sex education.

The risk is to provoke a mini-intifada inside the Muslim Brotherhood itself if women try to break free too fast and far from men.

For a long time, these discrete and faithful female soldiers of the Muslim Brotherhood remained in the shadow of their men. Mainly for security reasons. "The Brothers were regularly jailed and the wives had to take care of children," says Dina Zakkaria, speaking in flawless English. This member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Brotherhood - and mother of twin boys - received us in her plush apartment in Dokki, on the left bank of the Nile.

When amongst only women, Zakkaria's veil comes off, revealing long hair running to her waist. Over the fresh juice she proudly prepared, memories start rising to the surface: “I was 18 when I secretly joined the Brotherhood. We were still under Mubarak. I revealed my membership only after the revolution."

Zakkaria explains that while men took more risks, women’s role was essentially restricted to charitable and social works. "Each week, we organized the Osra ("family" in Arabic), secret meetings where we would discuss religion, family and politics. In order to stay ahead of the Mokhaberat -- the intelligence services --, the meeting place changed each week. When the appointments were arranged by phone, we simply said: let’s have tea next Monday.”

Veils and pink sneakers

But times have changed. This “Sister,” who describes herself as a “liberal woman with Islamic ideas,” makes appearances at international conferences to represent the Muslim Brotherhood. “Just see: I am travelling without my husband, I drive my car, I give interviews, I encourage women's education," she says. "Some say the Brotherhood wants to impose the veil on all Egyptian women, but this is not true!”

Set up in 1932 by Hassan Bana, the founder of the Muslim Brothers, the branch of “Sisters” has a history of its own. There was Zeinab al-Ghazali, imprisoned under Nasser in the 1960s for her dissident activities, and Jihan al-Halafawi who in the year 2000 became the first “Sister” to stand for general elections. Five years later, they were a dozen to run for a seat in the parliament.

But their real watershed was the revolution of January 2011. For 18 days, the young “Sisters” fought against both Mubarak and the will of the Muslim Brothers’ old guard. They camped in Tahrir Square, protested alongside men and shouted slogans as loud as they could. Needless to say, for some more conservative members of the group, such behavior was unacceptable.

Sara Mohammad, 20, was in Tahrir. Sporting a scarf with flowers, pink sneakers and a red tulip bag, the communication student recalls: “I have always been rebellious and I have always campaigned for greater women’s participation," she said. "But the Brotherhood told me that under Mubarak it was too risky and I could eventually be arrested. The problem is that after the revolution, nothing changed. The “Sisters” are more visible in public situations, but otherwise, they continue to be marginalized. So I left.”

Mohammed's father, who is a high-ranking Brother, does not forgive her. “The problem with the members of the Brotherhood is that they are convinced they are right. You are either with them or against them. There is no middle ground,” she says.

Sabah Sakari, a dynamic former pharmacist, is a Sisterhood leader who campaigns for equal rights on Islamic grounds. “The Koran advocates equality between men and women,” she insists. Sakari says that she may run some day for Egyptian president.

“It’s just pure propaganda!” protests Ehsan Yahia, a 37-year-old Islamist feminist, who considered joining the Muslim Brotherhood before having second thoughts. “One day I was invited to a women’s conference they'd organized: whenever the speaker pronounced the name of Morsi, they cheered mechanically," she recalls. "As in any cult, the guru is blindly worshipped!”

The referendum on the Constitution confirmed her disappointment. “I was astonished by the ambiguities in the text, especially concerning education and children's rights,” she says. Outraged, she posted on her Facebook page a picture of herself wearing a placard: “Yes To Sharia Law, No To The Constitution!”

Family values, real politics

“To me, religion is a guarantee of justice and honesty. But the Muslim Brotherhood exploits it for political purposes”, she stresses. “As for women’s rights, we are forbidden from ever holding the position of guide of the Brotherhood, and can't even be part of the counsellor office!”

But Ghada Hashad, “Sister” in the Party of Freedom and Justice, says the priorities of these women are misplaced. “A woman must be active as long as her involvement does not harm the family.” And adds, as if she was reciting a prayer: “The family is the cornerstone of a society. If it fails, the country fails.”

Paradoxically, this is the leitmotif of all new courses for women in her neighbourhood. The topics are as varied as unexpected: newspapers reading, political introduction, legal advices, parenting, marriage, reproduction and sexuality.

“Today, Muslim Sisters are trapped in their own contradictions," says one well-informed observer, who preferred to remain anonymous. "They represent the female branch of the “Brothers”, but their new political role and awareness of their body in the intimacy of the couple is a symbol of a mini-revolution.”

Indeed, back in this closed-door improvised classroom, Nehal Badie, the gynecologist-teacher insists: “God created sex to procreate children. But in a married couple, it is not haram (“illegal”) to have desires to satisfy, equally for men as for women!”

Now, whispers one, it is up to them to put these new ideas into practice.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!