Sisters of the Brotherhood


The Muslim Brotherhood is doing its best to shed its conservative Islamist image, pushing young female members to the forefront. But is this just a ploy to appease critics?

By Lauren E. Bohn
Apr 05, 2012

IF, JUST 18 MONTHS AGO, you had told Sondos Assem, a student at the American University in Cairo, that she’d shortly be perma-Tweeting a revolution that would bring down President Hosni Mubarak, she says she would have laughed. If you’d added that she’d be doing so mostly for the Muslim Brotherhood, while her mother – and fellow Brotherhood member – Manal Abu Hassan freely canvassed the streets, campaigning for a seat in Egypt’s new parliament, she would have thrown up her hands in dismissal,

“No way, not possible!” But this past winter, in one of the Brotherhood’s many Cairene offices, the 24-year-old was hunched over numbers and stats, her omnipresent smartphone in hand, tracking the wins of the group in parliamentary elections and Tweeting for the Brotherhood at one of the most crucial times in its history.

The Muslim Brotherhood is the 83-year-old fountainhead of political Islam in Egypt. Once relegated to illegal underground status, it is now the leading political force in the country. Its newly established political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, won just under half of the seats in Egypt’s recent parliamentary elections.

But the months since the halcyon days of the revolution have left an increasing rift between liberal and leftist political groups and the Brotherhood, who have been billed fiercely competitive at best and conniving at worst. Many have complained the Brotherhood has hijacked the revolution (Sondos points out that it’s just as much their revolution as anyone else’s) and that it merely pays lip-service to the notion of consensus building, while solely focusing on amassing power. With the Brotherhood winning the most seats in the elections – and the even more conservative Salafi party coming a close second – many fear a backsliding in minority rights in Egypt – particularly those of women.

The Brotherhood, however, presents itself as the main champion of women’s rights in a new Egypt. “I run this household,” Manal tells me at Sondos’s family home on the outskirts of Cairo. She looks back at her husband. He nods in agreement. “Muslim Brotherhood women are the strongest kind. Western feminists might not understand or like our head-scarves, but our women and men are more respectful, appreciative, and supportive of women than anyone.”

Sondos herself is a card-carrying member of the Brotherhood’s urban fourth generation. She’s a stereotype-busting, reverse-Orientalist journalist’s wet-dream. She wears fitted blazers from Zara and a dash of sparkly eyeshadow; a designer Burberry headscarf and shoes to match; and has an affinity for cosmopolitan cities and American-teen parlance like “You rock.” And she – and other fresh female faces – have been tasked with presenting a new, more modern, side of the Brotherhood that should appeal to the politically active younger generation that played such a crucial role in overthrowing the corrupt regime of Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for almost three decades before he finally stepped down on February 11th last year. But critics say Sondos and her colleagues are merely window-dressing, and that women like her old-guard mother are more representative of the organization’s provinciality.

Manal is affectionately known as the “matchmaker” within the Brotherhood (when I ask her about her political ideologies and oracular Islamic law, she winks, pats me on the shoulder, and shows me pictures of her unmarried son), but she’s no joke. A professor of media studies, she’s now chairman of the women’s committee in the Freedom and Justice party. She wrote the syllabus which all members of the Brotherhood – male and female – study (with chapters on “How to be a good Muslim wife” and “Raising a family in a Modern Age”). And she’s quick to dismiss the current criticism of the Brotherhood.

“We are currently the target of a media campaign to tarnish our image,” she says. “It’s nothing new, we’ve had a lot of practice. It’s like Mubarak’s regime all over again.”

She’s also quick to remind her daughter that she’s, well, her daughter. “Sondos is a superstar now,” she says, glancing up briefly from her Facebook page on her new iPad (“Why is this new Timeline feature so confusing?”). “But she still has a lot to learn, like most young people.”

To read the full story, pick up a copy of Rolling Stone Middle East, available at over 200 outlets in the UAE and GCC.





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