Muslim Brotherhood’s Statement on Women Stirs Liberals’ Fears
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK and MAYY EL-SHEIKH
CAIRO — During its decades as an underground Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood has long preached that Islam required women to obey their husbands in all matters.
“A woman needs to be confined within a framework that is controlled by the man of the house,” Osama Yehia Abu Salama, a Brotherhood family expert, said of the group’s general approach, speaking in a recent seminar for women training to become marriage counselors. Even if a wife were beaten by her husband, he advised, “Show her how she had a role in what happened to her.”
“If he is to blame,” Mr. Abu Salama added, “she shares 30 percent or 40 percent of the fault.”
Now, with a leader of the Brotherhood’s political arm in Egypt’s presidential palace and its members dominating Parliament, some deeply patriarchal views the organization has long taught its members are spilling into public view. The Brotherhood’s strident statements are reinforcing fears among many Egyptian liberals about the potential consequences of the group’s rise to power and creating new awkwardness for President Mohamed Morsi as he presents himself as a new kind of moderate, Western-friendly Islamist.
In a statement Wednesday on a proposed United Nations declaration to condemn violence against women, the Brotherhood issued a list of objections, which formally laid out its views on women for the first time since it came to power.
In its statement, the Brotherhood said that wives should not have the right to file legal complaints against their husbands for rape, and husbands should not be subject to the punishments meted out for the rape of a stranger.
A husband must have “guardianship” over his wife, not an equal “partnership” with her, the group declared. Daughters should not have the same inheritance rights as sons. Nor should the law cancel “the need for a husband’s consent in matters like travel, work or use of contraception” — a reform in traditional Islamic family law that was enacted under former President Hosni Mubarak and credited to his wife, Suzanne.
The statement appeared in many ways to reflect the Brotherhood’s longstanding doctrine, still discussed in classes like Mr. Abu Salama’s and in the group’s women’s forums. Feminists said its statement also may reflect the views of most women in Egypt’s conservative, traditionalist culture.
In an interview on Thursday, Pakinam El-Sharkawy, President Morsi’s political adviser and Egypt’s representative last week at the United Nations commission, sought to distance the Morsi administration from the Brotherhood’s statement.
The Brotherhood, she emphasized, does not speak for the president; he has resigned from the Brotherhood but remains a member of its political party. “Does any statement issued by any political party or group represent the presidency?” she asked. “It’s not the presidency’s institution, and it’s not an official entity.”
The Egyptian government, she said, “is working with all its powers and policies to stop all forms of violence against women.”
The government objected to the United Nations declaration condemning violence against women, she said, only over issues like whether to describe restrictions on abortion as an act of violence against women. That offended the cultural norms in many Arab and African countries, she said.
Asked about the statement’s apparent attempt to shield marital rape from legal prosecution, Ms. Sharkawy brushed off the issue as an irrelevant foreign concern.
“Marital rape? Is this a big problem that we have?” she said, suggesting that it might be a Western phenomenon, while sexual harassment in the streets was a far greater concern in Egypt.
“Should we import their concerns and problems and adopt them as ours?” she asked. “We’re talking about things that aren’t widely agreed upon, like abortion. We can’t give women the freedom to have abortions whenever they want.”
Do not pick issues not pressing in Egypt, she said, “and then tell me that I’m in a conflict with the international community.”
Some Egyptian feminists, though, called the statement a vindication of their warnings that the Brotherhood might lead Egypt in a more conservative and patriarchal direction.
“They do not believe that when domestic violence is present, the women should resort to the justice system or the legal process,” said Ghada Shahbandar of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. “It should be kept at home and under the protection of the family — that is their claim. And there is no such thing as marital rape because a husband is entitled to have sex with his wife any time that he wants.”
“This is the first time we have heard it said publicly on the world stage,” she said, “but this has been in their rhetoric for ages.”
In his seminar for prospective Islamist marriage counselors, Mr. Abu Salama justified the group’s approach to marriage by explaining that Islam also required husbands to be compassionate, just as it required women to be obedient.
Quoting Muhammad’s injunction that a man “must not fall on his wife like an animal,” a textbook in Mr. Abu Salama’s class said Islam instructed men to engage in foreplay before sex and attend to their partner’s satisfaction. As for inheritance, Islamic scholars have argued that a son should have a greater share, but also an obligation to look after the financial well-being of a sister.
But Mr. Abu Salam also argued that husbands should keep their wives under tight control. “It’s the nature of the weak to overstep the required framework if she is given the space and the freedom, like children,” he said in the seminar. Most of the women nodded in agreement.
Closing its statement on the proposed United Nations declaration, the Brotherhood appeared to go even further. The provisions discussed are “destructive tools meant to undermine the family as an important institution,” the statement concluded, and “would drag society back to pre-Islamic ignorance.”