Arab Women in Politics: Between Repression and Islamism?
The stunned reactions to the victory in the Palestinian election of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement, which refuses to accept Israel’s right to exist, has mostly overlooked a key issue. What is the role of Arab women in the unexpected role played by Islamist parties in the accelerating political transition away from authoritarianism?
In a politically sizzling region, the governments of four Arab countries — Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria — which range from repressive to moderate, are responding uniquely to the challenges posed by women and Islamists; two previously marginalized groups.
A few months ago, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — a controversial Islamist group tolerated by former President Anwar Sadat, but banned by his successor Hosni Mubarak — swept 88 seats: 20 percent of the total number of seats. Independent secular parties lost almost all their support: They gained one seat and socialists gained two.
This happened despite the fact that the 2005 election was the first time that the Brotherhood was allowed to participate in the electoral process in a significant, if informal, way. Observers, including American officials, have attributed this victory to a vacuum in political leadership on the part of the current regime and have argued that the Brotherhood’s welfare activities were an electoral asset.
It is not difficult to understand why the Muslim Brotherhood’s work and messages resonate in a country with a huge gap between rich and poor, high unemployment, low wages, deep-rooted corruption and a “government run by Ali Baba and the 40 thieves,” according to an Egyptian taxi driver.
But how did women react? Egypt has not been progressive on women’s involvement in politics — the new Egyptian parliament has only nine women members.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood are often represented as “saints” by Islamist supporters and as “sinners” or “suspects” by the media and young, educated women. An article published in Al Ahram on January 5, 2006 states that many moderates fear the gains of the Muslim Brotherhood “will mean an end to democracy…and the suppression of women.”
So, perhaps unsurprisingly, only one woman — Makarem El Deiry — ran in November’s election with the support of the Brotherhood.
El-Deiry initially won, but a judge later overturned her victory in favor of her opponent. But, El-Deiry’s short-lived victory is only half the story. The other half involves 24 other women from the Brotherhood who declined to run. The Brotherhood’s effort might have changed the gender composition of Egyptian politics significantly had the Mubarak regime allowed.
Amany Aboul Fadl, a professor of English literature and a mother of four, was one of the 24 who declined the chance to run on the Brotherhood slate. Involved with the Brotherhood since the 1970s, Fadl speaks bluntly: “The Muslim Brotherhood was pushing all 25 of us and pushing us hard. All but one refused to enter the political arena because [opposition] candidates are imprisoned and treated badly, including sexual assault. What dignified woman wants to subject herself to this kind of humiliation?” El-Deiry, 55, could run the risk of running, Fadl explained, because her age protected her.
Professor Fadl rejects the concerns modernist Muslim women express about the Brotherhood: “The goal of the Muslim Brotherhood is to eradicate poverty by providing health services and school education in the absence of government schools. But the government often closes these schools, claiming they are a “terrorist threat”.”
Fadl argues that the schools are closed because the Muslim Brotherhood is popular with the Egyptian masses. She claims, “The Islamists are strong advocates of the disenfranchised poor who, in an age of moral chaos, are receptive to religious messages about Islamic values of morality and social justice.”
But Nadia El-Awady — 36-year-old deputy editor-in-chief of IslamOnline.net — sees a more nuanced relationship between the Brotherhood and women. Born and raised in Illinois, she moved to Cairo at 17 and got involved in student politics at the university. During a student election, El-Awady became acquainted with the Brotherhood and found that while they promoted the candidacies of women, decision-making ultimately resided with the men. Still, Nadia is not convinced that the Brotherhood, in the end, would pursue an anti-women agenda.
Unlike in Egypt where Islamists have long been banned, Jordan has experimented with Islamists in parliament since the early 1990s. Nuha Ma’aytah, the second woman to serve in Jordan’s parliament in 2003, speaks about Jordan’s experience: “The Islamists started out as idealists and became pragmatists. They were strategic and included well educated and smart women in parliament, much more so than the other parties in power.”
Yet, like El-Awady in Egypt, she is cautious: “The Islamists did not give women their rights. They had their own exclusionary agenda and ideology when it came to women.” Jordan has only twelve women in its own parliament — barely more than Egypt.
The stark contrast to these three countries, where Islamists now seem firmly entrenched within democratic politics, is Syria. In Syria, Islamists are entirely frozen out of politics as is democracy. Women, however, participate both within the Assad regime and in the opposition.
However, in repressive Syria, women constitute 12 percent of members of parliament. Madame Houda Homsi Ajlani, a member of Syria’s parliament, recites the government position: “There’s no problem with gender in the Syrian parliament. Men and women work together and negotiate on political and economic issues. When it comes to negotiating budgets in parliament, women are better because they are more inclined to find solutions.”
She was educated as an electrical engineer and was first elected to parliament in 1991. Ajlani, who describes herself as “born with politics in…[her] blood,” launched her career as a member of the labor syndicate while still in college. Being a Muslim woman with a decorated Christmas tree in her living room, she reflects the straight Baathist, socialist party line. She extols Syria’s compulsory education for boys and girls until sixth grade, and the existence of nine political parties. She utters no reference to the ruling regime’s virtual dictatorship.
At the other end of the Syrian spectrum, is Nahed Badawie, 47, who has spent as many years as Ajlani working for the opposition. “I am always on the opposite side because I am against a dictator’s authority.” Badawie, who was jailed from 1987 to 1991, says: “I hope to build another country with another regime. We miss democracy here and we can’t express ourselves in this country.” Though Badawie, a civil engineer, says she is not a practicing Muslim, she comes from a deeply religious family. Ironically, her jail term overlapped with an 8-year-jail sentence that her brother was serving for his involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Badawie hopes that change will come with new internet based communication technologies and with a younger generation no longer controlled by family and authority. Most important is the role of women in a changing society: “Without the participation of women, we cannot construct a new democracy. Women have a lot to do to change Syria from a dictatorship to a democracy.”
In this month’s Palestinian elections, there were two political firsts. The press has widely reported Hamas’ stunning victory in its first electoral opportunity. But these elections also represented a breakthrough for women, who under a quota system had to comprise 20 percent of the candidates of both Fatah and Hamas. More important, one of the significant new political factions, Third Way, is co-led by a woman, Hanan Ashrawi, a Christian Palestinian formerly aligned with Fatah.
Professor Amany argues that voters in Egypt and the Middle East reject authoritarian regimes and “want a more religious system.”
Commenting on Hamas” victory in the Palestinian elections, Queen Rania of Jordan cites in a statement the difficult “conditions Palestinians are forced to live under” and argues that “it is an example of how when people are frustrated and have no hope for the future, they tend to go to the extreme end of the spectrum.”
But the Palestinian Authority’s outgoing Minister of State for Jerusalem, Hind Khoury — a Christian — highlighted her views after her speech at a conference in Bethlehem in late December where she put out a different message: “We need non-violence because it is women who have to pick up the pieces when families are destroyed. We (women) understand politics in a different way.”
That understanding and how Islamist and secular parties react to it appears to be one of the major unresolved dynamics of the new politics of the Arab world.
From professor Fadl in Egypt, who says “Islamists deserve a chance” to the Syrian women I spoke with, who see no support for Islamism in their secular society, women are divided in their views of the Islamists. But, women are united in their confidence that as their societies open up and democratize, more women will be at the table, inside and outside Islamist parties.
Allam, Hannah. Growing Complaints of Police Brutality Heard in Egypt. The Mercury News. Jan. 25, 2006 .
**Shahnaz Taplin-Chinoy is a freelance writer based in the United States She holds a master”s degree in communications from Stanford University. For the past 30 years, she has been working as a communications specialist in the San Francisco Bay Area and in India with non-profit organizations and foundations on women”s, children”s, and environmental issues. She is now channeling her experience to create a dialogue and bridge the divide between Islam and the West.