By Erika Biagini, Dublin City University, School of Law and Government
Photo: Women queuing outside Cairo’s Tora Prison, Egypt, July 2017. (Photo Courtesy of Lamia).
First Published in the International Feminist Journal of Politics Blog
A new wave of popular protests has recently spread across the Middle East and North Africa. From Algeria to Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon, but also Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, thousands have taken to the streets renewing demands for economic reforms, social justice and regime change, in what has been termed as a second wave of the “Arab Spring”. Images evocative of the past and portraying women as leaders of the popular uprisings are also making their way around the world. Yet, one cannot but be skeptical with regard to what these events will bring for women protesters in the region. As the Arab Spring demonstrated, patriarchal counter-revolutionary forces represent a major challenge for women who wish to maintain the gains made during national and revolutionary upheavals. In the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings Islamist women faced similar obstacles, although attention to their struggle for greater gender equality remained limited due to the patriarchal ideology that Islamist movements embrace.
In my IFJP article, “Islamist women’s feminist subjectivities in r-evolution: the Egyptian Muslim Sisterhood in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings”, I focus on the political involvement of a group of 35 young Muslim Brotherhood female activists, the Muslim Sisters. I demonstrate that the events associated to the 2011 revolution and the repression of Islamists since 2013 have led them to adopt a new gender politics. While Islamist women are seldom portrayed as feminists, nor do they describe themselves as such, my research shows that this gender politics has explicit feminist overtones, in the sense that it reflects Islamist women’s adoption of feminist practices. These feminist overtones have also become evident in the current phase of Islamists’ demobilization, as women begin to challenge men’s position of privilege within the sphere of the family.
Like Islamist men, Islamist women embrace a gender ideology that emphasizes men’s and women’s complementary – rather than equal – roles in society, and they promote a gender politics that associates women with the private sphere of the family. While Islamist women across the Middle East and North African region gained access to the public sphere by politicizing motherhood and the family, this strategy is believed to limit Islamist women’s ability to attain gender equality within their own movements. The politicization of motherhood provides women with a justificatory framework to engage in the national struggle without contradicting Islamist movements’ gender ideology, but also grants men the right to demand women’s return to the private sphere of the family when they consider their activism no longer necessary. Islamist women’s failure to address gender inequalities within the patriarchal family remains therefore a major limitation of their feminist politics and activism.
Now that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has fallen into an apparent state of stagnation and demanded women to return to their traditional role within the family, the Muslim Sisters have shifted their struggle for self-determination in that sphere. For instance, divorce – a practice considered demeaning for women by Egyptian society at large as well as within the Brotherhood movement – has become a central topic of conversation among the wives of Brotherhood prisoners. While not all the Sisters agree that divorce is an appropriate measure to take to alleviate their personal situation, others maintain that divorce is legitimate in their circumstances. Some also go as far as to claim their right to divorce based on what they believe to be a woman’s equal right to be sexually and emotionally fulfilled, therefore undermining notions of femininity, piety, and modesty as endorsed by the Brotherhood movement.
By claiming their right to divorce, to sexuality and to pursue personal desires and aspirations, the Muslim Sisters are challenging the patriarchal family structure, generating new possibilities for Islamist feminist politics. Indeed, while many continue to believe that feminism is a concept alien to Arab Muslim societies – because it embodies a conflict between the sexes while Islam envisioned cooperation- some claim that the Brotherhood’s approach to women rests on outdated traditions that need changing to grant them greater equality and opportunities. Notably, many wish for women to engage more powerfully in society to bring justice to their gender and to challenge what they believe to be privileges that men arbitrarily attribute to themselves in the name of religion.
While the long-term effect of the Muslim Sisterhood’s new gender politics will be significantly impacted by whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood will manage to exit the current state of repression, the relevance of this research rests in demonstrating that feminist subjectivities and politics are born out of revolutionary struggles, and that patriarchal Islamist movements are no exception to this trend. Equally urgent is the need to acknowledge the existence of diverse feminist positions among Islamist women, so to prompt novel and challenging discussions about feminist politics and gendered change in Islamist movements, and the Middle East and North African region more broadly.
Erika Biagini is Assistant Professor in Security Studies in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. Her area of expertise lies at the intersection of Islamism, gender, and politics. She lived extensively in Egypt between 2013 and 2018, where she conducted research on the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the activism of its female members, the Muslim Sisterhood, in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising. Her current research interests address Islamist women’s subjectivity, identity, and politics; the gender politics and sexuality of Islamist movements, and the evolution of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood since the 2013 repression.