Is Azza al Garf Egypt’s Michele Bachmann?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Jan. 19 2012 7:02 AM

Is Azza al Garf Egypt’s Michele Bachmann?

What the women of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party have in common with far-right republicans.

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As with Bachmann, who has cited the Bible in advising women, “Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands,” for al Garf, religiosity is a full immersion that permeates every aspect of life. For years when the Brotherhood was illegal, al Garf taught groups of women in “the way” of Islam. Al Garf’s classes served as life lessons and training for future female proselytizers for the Brotherhood. Funded by infusions of hundreds of millions of dollars over the years from conservative donors in the Gulf countries, al Garf and thousands of women like her have a powerful political ground game the Tea Partiers can only look upon with awe.

Like American conservative women, al Garf doesn’t support policies that would actually improve the real lives of women in her country—political and economic empowerment, for example. She understands that the majority of Egypt’s poor women already work outside the home and must at least travel alongside men, often supporting deadbeat husbands and children, all the while swaddled in scarves and floor-length gowns—the restrictive costume a direct result of decades of social pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood and their auxiliary force, of whom al Garf is a member in good standing.

However, a major difference between these American conservative women and their Egyptian counterparts—in the U.S., Bachmann is a fringe candidate; in Egypt al Garf is in the political mainstream. As the religious parties like the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party take control, women in Egypt are facing a surge in street sexual harassment that has prompted the creation of an online community to try to talk to men about why they shouldn’t grope. Abortion is illegal except in case of danger to the mother’s life and only if three doctors sign off on that. And it’s the rare rape case that ever gets to court, given the societal punishment of female sexual victims. None of these issues are the concern of the Freedom and Justice Party, though.

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Progressive Egyptian women have spent years trying to change Egypt’s inheritance law, which apportions men twice as much as women, and trying to make Egypt’s divorce laws more equitable for women. Women who want a divorce can find themselves in court for years, while men have moved on and started new families.

Al Garf thinks divorce is too easy under current law. “Egyptian women don't need better divorce laws because Islam will teach them to work out their problems first,” as in religious couples’ counseling, she said. Once the Brotherhood has been in power for a while, “no one will want to get divorced anymore.”

Newly vocal progressives have pushed back. Thousands of women marched through Cairo in December against violence against women. But the breakdown in civil security has left women more vulnerable on the streets and more likely to stay home—which the Islamists consider to be women’s proper place anyway.

For now, the religious party’s auxiliary wing is Egyptian women’s only shot at having any female voice at all in the political process. It remains to be seen whether women like Azza al Garf will hear their hopes, or just listen to God.

Nina is working on a book about the fate of women after the Arab revolutions to be published in spring 2012.

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