Azza al Garf, one of the five women elected to the post-revolutionary 500-member Egyptian Parliament, has a single book inside her Spartan office at the new suburban headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood outside Cairo, and it is the holy one. The lobby is guarded by a trio of middle-aged men with protuberant prayer calluses on their foreheads resembling large warts. The only wall decoration in the waiting area is a giant framed poster of the 10 sayings of Brotherhood founder Hasan al Banna, including the advice: “Don’t laugh a lot without a reason.”
Al Banna’s attitudes toward women, not advertised on the poster, are equally detailed and abstemious, include segregating the sexes, encouraging marriage and procreation “by all possible means,” and closing "morally undesirable ballrooms and dance halls.” Al Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s, and it has become a model around the world for Islamic parties seeking to combine secular power and theological precepts.
An engaging and attractive 47-year-old woman with high cheekbones, makeup-free flawless skin, and Angelina Jolie lips, al Garf doesn’t look like she’s ever kicked up her heels at a dance hall. A mother of seven, she works a look of extreme purity, her face framed by a nun-like, tightly wrapped white scarf trailing over her shoulders and down the back of a spotless mauve corduroy coatdress that reaches to her shoes.
Al Garf and the women of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party that is poised to run Egypt are oxymoronic creatures: culturally regressive trailblazers. Being one of five women elected to the new Parliament is a real accomplishment, since all the female candidate’s names were deliberately placed at the bottom of the ballots (they were only on the ballot in the first place because the law required it), but al Garf and her ilk dare not crow about it. One of the chief conditions of female membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is that they agree to second-place status. Women cannot vote for party leaders or serve on top committees. What they can do, and what they have been doing for decades, is educate and organize women across Egypt.
As I sat across from al Garf listening to her recite soothing party platitudes about how the Brotherhood’s main goals for Egypt were economic and civil security, I had the nagging feeling that she reminded me of someone. Then it struck me: She had much more in common with America’s female conservatives—Bachman, Palin, Schlafly—than she had with either me or the Egyptian feminist lawyers and women’s rights activists I had interviewed that morning.
The rise of the strong female politician with regressive ideas about women’s rights seems to be a global phenomenon. In Egypt, the sisters of the Muslim Brotherhood share similarities with the extreme right wing of the Republican Party including relying on the supernatural advice of a “higher power” for their political involvement and an unabashed commitment to policies that limit or reverse women’s rights. Though these women have benefitted from the notion that women are equal, they work hard to differentiate themselves from feminists and attack them whenever possible. But for a few differences—that little matter about Israel, certainly—she would find much on which to agree with her Western counterparts.
Like Bachmann and Palin, al Garf is a practicing, but definitely not professing, feminist: She’s a college-educated mother raising a big family who worked outside her home as a journalist and spent several decades devoted to hard-core political organizing of other women. Now she’s an elected political leader.