The Muslim Brotherhood’s Take on Women’s Rights: Reading between the Lines?

Creator: Jana Traboulsi. All rights reserved.

As a religion, Islam is often accused of discriminatory practices towards women. Whether this is true or not cannot be easily determined. On the one hand, there are indeed many verses in Qur’an which assert that women are not equal to men in their human and social status[1], or in matters of inheritance[2], court testimony[3], polygamy, and personal cleanliness[4]. According to Qur’an, on many matters women are not permitted to have a voice - this is particularly the case in sexual relationships.[5] On the other hand, there are other verses in Qur’an which suggest the opposite is true.[6] These verses advocate for equality and harmony between men and women in an Islamic society.

Regardless of this debate over what the Qur’an states about the role of women, what is clear to see is that most Islamists have taken positions that degrade their status and situation. Historically, even Islamist groups involved in struggles for social justice have not made serious efforts to challenge the widely held image of Islam as oppressing and marginalising women. The Muslim Brotherhood of Syria is no exception to the failure of such popular movements to address the issue of gender equality in a meaningful way. In their programme in 1949, they limited their vision for women to one sentence, which simply read, ‘raising the woman’s level and protecting her ethics and value; and paying attention to her uprising so as to be a good mother and a good raiser’.[7] Sixty years later, things have not changed much. 

Raise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria

The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has a history of fighting against the secular, pan-Arab, socialist Ba’ath Party of the Syrian middle classes. Established in the 1940s, the Muslim Brotherhood gained power in 1961 but was driven underground three years later after a coup by the Ba’athists in 1963. Over the next 20 years, several violent armed conflicts took place in the city of Hama and Homs. This led to the destruction of Hama during a terrible battle in which most of the Muslim Brotherhood were killed, and many others went into exile.

The Muslim Brothers Return

The death of the late President Hafez al-Assad in June 2000 and the assumption of power by his son Bashar opened the door to the Damascus Spring[8]. The Damascus Spring included almost the entire political and civil society opposition spectrum except for the Muslim Brotherhood, whose ‘inclination’ was to give the new regime in Syria a chance to carry out reforms, or at least to show that it had the desire to do so. The Muslim Brotherhood even expressed their readiness to ‘cooperate with the regime to achieve this and were ready to accept gradual reform.’[9]

By this point, it must be noted that many aspects of Syrian society had already been ‘Islamized'. The previously secular Ministry of Culture was given to a pro-Islamist minister. Islamic institutions mushroomed, with clerics becoming more important than professors, artists, and writers. The famous Sufi women’s movement Qubaysiyat, which works within the circles of women in the upper middle class and upper class, moved away from meeting in secrecy and into public life. Qubaysiyat was established by Munira al-Qubaysi under the auspices of the regime, and comprises more than 75,000 women, making it a significant and influential Islamist group. 

Although they did not participate in the new regime, the Muslim Brotherhood gradually returned to the political scene. They worked on developing their political visions for a future Syria, resulting in three major documents over the subsequent years: ‘The National Honour Pact’ (May 2001), ‘The Political Project for the Future Syria’ (2004), and ‘The Pledge and Charter by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’ (2012).

‘The National Honour Pact’

In 2001, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood published a document which became a landmark in the post Hafez al-Assad political era: ’The National Honour Pact’. The document is a set of ideas that the Muslim Brotherhood proposes for dialogue among the Syrian political parties to reach a national pact of honour, as it is no longer viable for any party to claim that it alone represents the nation.[10]

The document was a real change in the Muslim Brotherhood’s approach. It envisages the establishment of a ‘modern contractual state’ based on institutions and the separation of authorities. However, the Pact fails to account for social progress, especially on the question of gender. It mentions women in only one instance, when it states that its signatories abide by ‘cooperating to defend human rights and the rights of individual citizens, (…) and protect women and defend their rights and ensure the equality between women and men regarding their human and civil eligibility.’

This vague statement does little to advance the cause of gender justice. It subsumes women’s rights under the issue of human rights regardless of their particular concerns, and fails to address ‘empowerment’. Whilst the document stresses that equality between men and women is in their human and civil eligibility, it does not acknowledge the need for equality in men and women's social and political status. This supports rather than challenges the assertion that the Islamic vision prevents women from playing a leading role in the state or society. While they are humanly equal, they are not socially equal.

‘The Political Project for the Future Syria’

As a second step in the Muslim Brothers’ new trend the party published its ‘Political Project for Future Syria’.[11] The project, which drew a lot of discussion and opposing positions, did not deny any of the promises made in ‘The National Honour Pact’. However it was more conservative, being based on Islamic rules and verses of the Qur’an. It states that Islam is enshrined as ‘a code of conduct for the devout Muslim’ and should be a ‘civilisational identity’ for all Syrians, as the official religion of the country and the highest source of legal authority.

The document did take a step forward in clarifying the way the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria saw women. A whole chapter was dedicated to women, describing them as ‘the core of humanity and the source of creation (…) equal in dignity, humanity and responsibility.’ It states that ‘women are the equal halves of men and the main principle in Islamic teachings is the equality between both apart from a very few exceptions stated clearly by Allah Almighty, for objective reasons and factors.’

There are however a number of issues with the way women are presented in the document. Not least, women’s role is described in emotive terms which do little to advocate for women’s emancipation.

‘The relationship between man and woman is a complementary rather than a competitive one, and the rights of women are ordained by Allah Almighty, and not granted by or forced out from men. We do not see that a woman’s devotion to caring for her home and her children as either belittling to her or a sacrifice on the part of society, but rather as a form of specialization and distributing efforts. However, this concept by no means prevents women from participating in public life, particularly those whose personal conditions and situations allow them to enter the employment market, so that ultimately women in our society are callers to Islam, workers in all fields of life, artists, jurists, scholars, voters and candidates to public posts.’

Additionally, the Muslim Brotherhood would not pledge to make efforts to help women overcome the ‘personal conditions and situations’ it refers to in order to enable them to play a bigger role in society. Rather, it suggested it would allow ‘those whose personal conditions and situations allow them to enter the employment market’ to do so. This is clearly problematic.

However, the document did frame the issue of women as important for society as a whole. Thus, promoting women and their cause leads inevitably to the promotion of humanity and justice. It recognised that women have rights to education, employment, elections to parliamentary and political offices, as well as social rights such as the right of choosing a spouse without any compulsion and to custody of her children, in accordance to the Islamic law. The 2004 political program therefore represented - at least in theory - a tremendous step forward in political Islam’s way of looking at women.

The Pledge and Charter’

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood occupied a significant place in the Syrian revolution. Until August 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood’s role did not exceed that of any other political group; indeed, the entire political establishment played little part in the wave of protests which swept the nation. After August 2011 however, weight started to shift away from demonstrators and their political expressions and back to the political parties (and to some extent to the fighting militias). This shift gave the Muslim Brotherhood a strong role because it is more organised than other parties, is wealthier, and has better connections with regional centres of power.

To enhance this position, the Muslim Brotherhood played all their pragmatic cards, and announced that they would work for

‘a civil state that is sovereign and in which the individual enjoys all the fundamental rights guaranteed in international laws and conventions of human rights, without any discrimination on the basis of religion, sect, ethnicity or social background. We seek to build a state founded on a civil constitution with separation of powers, and where all citizens, men and women, will participate in its governance through the ballot box in a free and fair manner that allows the election of the most capable to every office.’[12]

To overcome suspicions about its intentions as an Islamist group, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood published a new document titled ‘A Pledge and Charter by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’. This detailed the movement’s views regarding the form that a post-Assad Syria should take. In this document, the movement clarified its commitment to strive for a modern civil state with a civil constitution and a parliamentary republican regime, chosen in free elections. This would be a state that would practice civil, religious, denominational, and gender equality and in which every citizen has the right to reach the highest positions. It advocated for governance based on dialogue, partnership, commitment to human rights, and combating terrorism, enabling Syria to become a source of regional stability.

The new document was more concise than its 2004 political program, and even the 2001 ‘National Honour Pact’. But despite its liberal language, the issue of women rights was still not discussed in detail. The document overtly states that the Muslim Brotherhood would work for a Syria that is based on citizenship and equality, in which ‘men and women are equal in human dignity and legal capacity, and the woman enjoys her full rights.’[13] However, the document fails to specify what these rights might be. It iterates the equality of men and women, but as in previous document, avoids mentioning women’s political rights. The document states that ‘all citizens should be equal regardless of their ethnicity, faith, school of thought, or orientation’; [14] again, no mentioning of gender.

Putting Principles into Practice

The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria are pragmatic, and due to this they appear flexible in their stance on issues related to gender. However, despite their liberal discourse, there is always a gap between what they propose in theory and are willing to practice. In an interview with Dubai TV, the Muslim Brotherhood’s current leader Riad al-Shakfeh said that his group favours a civil state that does not state the religion – or gender - of their officials. ‘If the Syrian people choose a Christian or a woman to the office of President, we will support their decision’ he said.[15] In this he is echoing the former quasi-liberal group leader Ali Sadruddin al-Bayanouni.[16] Still, the Muslim Brotherhood have very few women in the leadership in Syria; two in the Executive Office and six in the Shura (legislative) Office.

Neither were the Muslim Brotherhood tolerant of women occupying high ranking offices in the alliances they were part of. Basma Kodmani, a woman who played a vital role in establishing the Syrian National Council (SNC), failed to get enough votes to remain in the SNC Executive Bureau allegedly because the Muslim Brotherhood would not support her. She was blunt when she accused ‘members of the organisation of focusing on their own partisan and personal agendas to the detriment of the organisation as a whole.’[17]

In addition, it must not be overlooked that the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria are part of the Muslim Brother’s International Organisation, which oversees several Muslim Brotherhood groups in the region.[18] Therefore, no matter how pragmatic and flexible they can be in their discourse in Syria, the group are unlikely to be able to break the circle of influence of the Muslim Brotherhood groups in Egypt or the Hamas Movement in Palestine. In this regard, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood may struggle to distance itself from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s claim that the UN declaration calling for an end to violence against women will lead to the ‘complete disintegration of society’.

The experiences of women in Gaza under Hamas is not any more encouraging. According to a report released by Freedom House in 2012, under Hamas the ‘personal status’ law has been derived almost entirely from Sharia (Islamic law). They argue that this puts women at a stark disadvantage in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and domestic abuse. Rape, domestic abuse, and ‘honour killings’, in which relatives murder women for perceived sexual or moral transgressions, are common and often go unpunished by the Hamas leadership, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood International Organisation.

Syrian Sisters: A Challenge for Muslim Brothers

A major factor forcing the Muslim Brotherhood to dedicate thought to women’s issues is so-called ‘Islamic Feminism’. This movement aims for the full equality of all Muslims, male and female, in both public and private life. It became popular in the 1990s, and wholly rejects the notion of a public/private dichotomy in which different rules apply to different sexes. Instead, ‘Islamic Feminism’ conceptualises a holistic umma in which Qur’anic ideals are operative across all spaces.[19]

The Muslim Brotherhood cannot accuse Islamic feminists of demeaning the religion or buying into Western ideas. Leading Islamic feminists such as Ziba Mir-Hosseini have argued that indeed ‘Islamic Feminism’ has been developed in reaction

to dominant Western feminist trends, according to which to be a feminist you have to be secular and must work within a secular framework, an understanding that is something heavily influenced by white, middle-class Western women’s experiences and cannot be said to be universal at all.’[20]

Islamic Feminism is therefore a serious challenge to the Muslim brothers. In Syria, Islamic Feminism has been represented by the Qubaysiyat mentioned earlier in this piece, but also by other strong and popular figures. These include Asma Keftaro, the founder and director of the Islamic Syrian Women Forum; Sahar Abu Harb, the founder and director of the gathering Non-Violence Planet; and Hanan Laham, the renowned, influential preacher.

Last but not least, there is a demand for a more inclusive approach from within the Muslim Brotherhood’s own ranks. In the early 1950s a young female activist, Amina Sheikha, met Mustapha al-Sibai, the Syrian group’s founder and exceptionally charismatic leader. She told him she wanted to set up a Syrian Sisterhood which could be tasked with recruiting female members. In 2016, the Sisterhood has become even bigger in number and greater influence, both within the organisation and in its national role.[21] Most recently, six women were elected to the group’s Majlis al-Shura (consultative body) and two of them now form part of the organisation’s leadership. This number is set to rapidly, grow according to a source close to the leaders.[22]

The prominence of the Syrian Sisterhood is also growing within the Muslim Brotherhood’s ‘youth branch’ where girls and young women reportedly make up about 10 per cent of the membership. When a three-day meeting of the youth branch was organised in Istanbul in December 2012, these young female Islamist activists emerged as the voice of innovation. At the current time they will not be a threat to the Muslim Brotherhood’s historic leadership, because due to their age they cannot have direct influence; however, their spirit and enthusiasm will definitely create a challenge to the masculine leadership of future Islamist politics.

In conclusion, the Muslim Brotherhood has wide paces parting from their old discourse, at the theoretical level; there is still work to do in persuading them of the need for further practical shifts. To understand where this work lies, the Muslim Brotherhood needs to listen to the new generation within the organisation and across the nation of Syria. As one prominent journalist put it,

‘the fact that women were among the first to demonstrate against the regime is little reported. But despite that, women remain grossly under represented when it comes to the local opposition councils inside Syria and the opposition bodies that exist outside of the country.’[23]

This is not happening yet - but this has little to do with their Islamist foundations, given that secular parties are not much better in this regard.

 

[1] ‘And the men are a degree above them [women]’ Qur'an: 2:228.

[2] ’If there are both brothers and sisters, the male will have the share of two females. Allah makes clear to you [His law], lest you go astray.’ Qur’an: 4: 176.

[3] ‘And bring to witness two witnesses from among your men. And if there are not two men [available], then a man and two women from those whom you accept as witnesses - so that if one of the women errs, then the other can remind her.’ Qur’an: 2: 282.

[4] ‘Or (if) you have had contact with women, and ye find not water, then go to clean, high ground and rub your faces and your hands with some of it.’ Qur'an: 5:6.

[5] ‘Your wives are as a tilth unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will...’ Qur'an: 2:223.

[6] Particularly, ‘Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so - for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.' Qur’an: 33:35.

[7] The platform of the Socialist Islamic Front, the political umbrella of the Muslim brothers, published in al-Manar al-Jadid Newspaper, 11/11/1949.

[8] A term that was given to the period that lasted for one year and witnessed extensive civil society activities, which the regime ended by force, jailing several leaders of the movement including the liberal activist Riad Seif.

[9] MB Leader Ali al Bayanouni to al Jazeera’s Ahmad Mansour, August 19, 2005.

[10] Mashroua Mithaq Sharaf Watani lil Amal al-Siyassi, (A Draft national Pact of Honor) available in Arabic at: http://www.levantnews.com/archives/3197.

[11] An English translation of the program is available at: http://www.ikhwanweb.com/article.php?id=5804

[12] See former MB leader Ali Sadruddin al-Bayanouni: The Muslim Brotherhood wants a future for all Syrians, The Guardian, 6 August 2012.

[13] An English translation of the Pledge and Charter can be found at: http://carnegie-mec.org/publications/?fa=48390.

[14] An English translation of the Pledge and Charter can be found at: http://carnegie-mec.org/publications/?fa=48390.

[15] The interview is available in Arabic at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MuhtL6wc3wU .

[17] SHANE FARRELL, Has the SNC lost its voice, available at: https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/reportsfeatures/has_the_snc_lost_its_voice.

[18] For detailed information about the MB International Organization, see Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Leader Provides Details On “International Organization”, available at: http://globalmbreport.com/?p=1451.

[19]  See Rachelle Fawcett, The reality and future of Islamic feminism, al-Jazeera net, available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/03/201332715585855781.html.

[20] Interview With Ziba Mir-Hosseini, available at: http://www.countercurrents.org/sikand070210.html.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Arwa Damon, Syria's women: Fighting a war on two fronts: http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/07/world/meast/syrian-revolution-women.

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