Book review: A woman's account of the early days of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Wednesday 6 Jul 2011

The wife of one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and a close acquaintance the founder of the movement, Fatma Abdel-Hadi relates an unknown side of the MB's history in Egypt

Fatma Abdel-Hadi (born 1917) shares with the reader her remarkably ability to recall minute details after decades, in addition, of course, to her revealing story about her life within the Muslim Brotherhood, of which she was a member since the early 1940s.

The book isn’t exactly an autobiography by Abdel-Hadi, but in fact it was a series of interviews conducted by the researcher in Islamic movements, Hossam Tamam, as indicated in his introduction. Despite her age, she patiently told her story in long recording sessions and recalled events and incidences that passed over three quarters of a century ago. This was also supported by the efforts of her son-in-law, Ahmed Abdel-Meguid, who played a significant role in the Brotherhood himself. This record stores a very important historical track of the Brotherhood, saving it from being lost.

Abdel-Hadi’s biography intersects with the most important historical changes that took place in the MB movement and links directly with many of its leading figures. She was closely related to the homes of many leaders and historical figures, including Hassan El-Banna (the founder of the movement) and was close to his family, wife and daughters. In fact, she was the only woman, besides his family, who witnessed the hour of his assassination  and was present during his funeral. She also had a close relationship to the family of the second morshed (guide), Hassan El-Hodaiby, as well as the women in Sayed Kotb's family (a key thinker and among the movement’s founders).

In addition, Mohamed Youssef Hawash, her husband, was close to Sayed Kotb throughout his detainment at the prison hospital. This intricate relationship renders the testimony even more important, for she knew Kotb and his sisters well, and thus met with him various times at his home. This long history led her to be a trusted person, to the extent that she was in the process of arranging his marriage, although it was never completed.

Hawash was also among the three who were executed in the 1965 case; this group raised slogans that God is the only ruler, thus the current ruler is a heretic and it is religiously acceptable to disobey his rules. They applied this premise, which is also taken up by many other radical Islamist movements, and chose to enter into jihad (religious war) to raise arms against the rulers.

On another front, Abdel-Hadi sheds light on many unspoken facts; not only from her position, but also as a women, noticing details that may not be noted by historians, in particular the private life of the Brotherhood.

For example, she expresses her strong objection to the current Brotherhood generations' interest in outer appearance, such as clothes. She noted that in earlier generations, the "sisters" were dressed like anyone else. In fact, Hassan El-Banna's wife had nothing to do with the affairs of the Brotherhood and stayed away out of their business!

Abdel-Hadi joined the Brotherhood in 1942 and was among six who started the "Muslim Sisters" section, and among the first to start organised female activism. It is interesting to note that Zainab El-Ghazali, whose name is frequently repeated in feminine activism, had her roots in the Organisation for Muslim Women, which, in fact, was independent from the Muslim Brotherhood and only joined them later in 1965.

Concerning her preaching, Abdel-Hadi says:

Among the efforts of this organisation, which I started with a small group during the 1940s, was to spread the teachings among women in all of Egypt and to start branches for the Sisters around the country. We travelled to Port Said, Assiut, Minya and other governorates and established those branches for the Sisters. The Brothers had to organise our programme in each city before we travelled. They would arrange for us to stay in one house, where all the women gathered; we would give them lessons; direct them to some work and readings in books.

She mentions in another moment that when short skirts became the fad that she advised each of the sisters to use public transport and carry a large pin to prick the bare legs of these brazen women, but to then apologise and use the opportunity to call her into the Brotherhood.

Among the Sisters’ activities was to marry off the Brothers - a very important social dimension that is rare to find in historical records. She herself married Hawash, Sayed Kotb's companion, after he proposed through her brother. Her biography is filled with names of the Brothers and many details of their marriages organised by the Sisters.

Preaching consumed all of Abdel-Hadi's time and effort and this is what resulted in her late marriage (she was 35) and Hawash was five years younger than her. Because Hawash spent most of his time in jail, except for a few months in between jail sentences, Abdel-Hadi spent most of her time alone during their marriage and up until his assassination in 1965.

Although many historians have detailed the history of the Brotherhood, covering many analytical, theoretical and historical aspects; these were all men. Having a woman give her testimony among the Brotherhood adds a lot to their history and it's likely that Abdel-Hadi's will be the most important and most notable among them.

Rehlaty Ma' Al-Ekhwat Al-Muslimat (My journey with the Muslim Sisters)
Author: Fatma Abdel-Hadi
Dar Al-Shorouk, 2011 Cairo PP. 146

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