(WOMENSENEWS)--In Egypt's transitional period after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and before the arrival of a new constitution, the world's eyes are on the Muslim Brotherhood--known in Arabic as al-ikhwan al-muslimun --or simply al-ikhwan: the Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood has been careful to refute the claim that it seeks the presidency and has taken a pro-democracy posture. Kamal El-Helbawy the Muslim Brotherhood in the West, said that the Brotherhood would only seek to implement Sharia, or Islamic law, "if the majority of the people and democratic practices allow it."
But plenty of people are wary of the group's real agenda.
One of them is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the outspoken critic of violence committed against women in the name of Islam who belonged to the group as a teenager.
In a recent phone interview with Women's eNews, the Somalia-born Dutch politician and writer said the big questions now in Egypt are whether the military will allow a constitutional democracy to develop and whether the Brotherhood could take power. She thought it likely the Brotherhood would try to spread restrictions on women if they had a chance to consolidate political control.
The Brotherhood was founded by Hasan al Banna in 1928, when Egyptian politics and economy was still dominated by Britain, despite nominal independence in 1922. As the leader of the religious, political and social-welfare movement, he wanted to return Egyptian society--regarded as corrupted and subjugated by the West--to a more "authentic" form of Islam.
For women, the Brotherhood's push for authentic Islam meant adhering to the role prescribed to them under Sharia, namely that of childbearing and motherhood.
The modern-day Muslim Brotherhood has reframed its gender agenda, but not reformed it, according to Mariz Tadros, a fellow at the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton, England.
The Brotherhood continues to exalt the roles of mothers and wives for women, she wrote in the January 2011 issue of the Institute of Development Studies Bulletin, published online. And it prohibits a woman from serving as president.
But that doesn't mean restricting women entirely from public life.
"We welcome the participation of women in all our activities," Mahmoud Ghozlan, of the Brotherhood's Executive Bureau, told Ikhwanweb, the group's official English-language Web site. "Women have the right to occupy all positions except the office of presidency."
In 2010, the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, based in Maadi, Cairo, published an internal poll within the Brotherhood showing that 95 percent agreed with women's participation in the party.
An internally divisive issue for the group is female genital mutilation, known as FGM, which Egypt banned ineffectively in 1997. A loophole still allowed the practice to continue "for health reasons," but this was closed in 2007 with another ministry ban.
Egypt has one of the highest rates of female genital mutilation in the world--referred to in Arabic as khafd, lowering--and is popular especially in rural areas.
In 2008, Saad El Katany, the leader of the Brotherhood bloc in parliament, led the opposition to the Child Law amendment, which, among other things, reinforced the female genital mutilation ban.
Mariam Ali, then editor, fired back in a piece for Ikhwanweb: "The opposition of some Muslim Brotherhood MPs to the latest law criminalizing FGM should not be misinterpreted as to suggest the Muslim Brotherhood supports FGM," she wrote. "For most MPs, FGM is a hateful and brutal tradition that needs to be eradicated from Egyptian society."
The party is by far Egypt's largest unified opposition group. It has been outlawed since 1954, when blamed for the assassination attempt of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser.
But independent candidates still managed to win 20 percent of the parliamentary elections in 2005, despite harassment, arrests and widespread electoral fraud in favor of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party.
Conservatism of Women's Dress
One visible gauge of the group's social resonance is the increasing conservatism of women's dress.
One day in 2009 when I was living in Cairo and working for the American University in Cairo Press, I watched European tourists disembark their tour bus. They were next to a row of expensive floating restaurants on the island of Zamalek, which lies like a stepping-stone in the Nile between two banks and is popular among the khawagat --foreigners and expats.
The women wore short skirts, hot pants, tiny tops, boob tubes. The Egyptians who caught sight of these tourists stopped and stared.
Nowadays, the vast majority of Egyptian women wear the hijab--a headscarf covering their hair--and dress with a particularly Egyptian blend of modesty and flair. Many of the fashion-conscious women color coordinate everything, from headscarves, shirts and belts down to nail polish.
In another part of town called Madinat Nasr, in a crammed, clanking tram car, I once noticed a faded wall poster about the Brotherhood's favored dress code.
In 2005, Makarem el-Diri, the Brotherhood's only female candidate, lost her bid for this middle-class constituency, but fought a campaign based on the protection of the family and women's primary role as a good mother. The poster reflected this platform. It pictured a woman in modest, fitted denim and colorful hijab, crossed though in red.
The "correct" garb, indicated by a big green tick, was a loose-fitted black abaya --an enveloping black robe and headscarf-that revealed only the hands and face. Most of the women in that tram car already wore the "correct" dress.
But it was not always so. Many of the older women who now wear conservative Islamic dress grew up in the 1960s wearing miniskirts and go-go boots.
The Brotherhood has provided the most persistent form of resistance to Mubarak's 30 years of emergency rule, which was in part accepted for the stability it brought. It's tempting to think that hemlines may have fallen along with favor for his increasingly autocratic rule.
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Merryn Johnson studied Arabic and worked in a publishing house in Cairo, Egypt. She is now a freelance journalist based in London, England.
-- Katherine Rausch contributed reporting to this story.
For more information:
"The Role of Muslim Women in an Islamic Society," Ikhwanweb:
"Get Ready for the Muslim Brotherhood," Ayaan Hirsi Ali's opinion piece in The New York Times: