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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.

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Tour Of Istanbul's Ancient Yedikule Gardens, At Risk With Urban Restoration

The six-hectare gardens in the center of Istanbul, which are more than 1,500 years old, have helped feed the city's residents over the centuries and are connected with its religious history. But current city management has a restoration project that could disrupt a unique urban ecosystem.

Photo of Muslims performing Friday prayer in the garden of Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

Last March, Muslims performing Friday prayer in the garden of Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

Tolga Ildun via ZUMA Press Wire
Canan Coşkun

ISTANBUL — The historic urban gardens of Yedikule in Istanbul are at risk of destruction once again. After damage in 2013 caused by the neighborhood municipality of Fatih, the gardens are now facing further disruption and possible damage as the greater Istanbul municipality plans more "restoration" work.

The six-hectare gardens are more than 1,500 years old, dating back to the city's Byzantine era. They were first farmed by Greeks and Albanians, then people from the northern city of Kastamonu, near the Black Sea. Now, a wide variety of seasonal produce grows in the garden, including herbs, varieties of lettuce and other greens, red turnip, green onion, cabbage, cauliflower, tomato, pepper, corn, mullberry, fig and pomegranate.

Yedikule is unique among urban gardens around the world, says Cemal Kafadar, a historian and professor of Turkish Studies at Harvard University.

“There are (urban gardens) that are older than Istanbul gardens, such as those in Rome, but there is no other that has maintained continuity all this time with its techniques and specific craft," Kafadar says. "What makes Yedikule unique is that it still provides crops. You might have eaten (from these gardens) with or without knowing about it."

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