Egyptian Muslim Sisterhood and a new historic testimony

Hussam Tammam , Thursday 15 Sep 2011

Through the lens of the life testimony of Fatemah Abdel-Hadi, one of the founders of the Muslim Sisterhood, a remarkable glimpse is possible into historic shifts that defined Egypt's modern political history

Fatemah Abdel-Hadi, one of the founders of the Egyptian Muslim Sisterhood Chapter and a prominent leader in the group, was one of the founding generation of Muslim women activists. Women’s activism was modest in the first few years after the creation of the group in Ismailiya before it moved to Cairo in April 1932, and its work became better known under the leadership of Labiba Ahmed. In April 1944, it launched into action with the creation of the first Executive Committee of the Muslim Sisterhood upon the orders of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Hassan Al-Banna, and under the supervision of Mahmoud Al-Gohari. The committee included 12 female members chaired by Fatemah Al-Ashmawi and her deputy, Abdel-Hadi.

Abdel-Hadi was the wife of a very important although not well-known figure, Mohamed Youssef Hawash, who was a prominent member of the famous 1965 Group who were disciples of the famous idealogue Sayed Qutb. Not only was Hawash Qutb’s companion in jail and then execution, he is considered Qutb’s eye through which he viewed the Muslim Brotherhood and the hand that led him as an outsider through the group’s inner machinations which were difficult to decipher in the 1950s and 1960s, during bloody confrontations with Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s regime.

Abdel-Hadi was a firsthand witness of an era; she was one of the founders of the Muslim Sisterhood, a realm that three quarters of a century later remains unexplored in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood and the overall Islamic movement. Only few have surfaced out of this dynamic and at times explosive entity, such as Haja Zeinab Al-Ghazali who was viewed as a symbol of Muslim women’s activism and fascination after the publication of her famous autobiography Days of My Life, about the true and unwritten record of the Muslim women’s movement. Abdel-Hadi’s testimonial serves as an introduction to this history, especially from a social perspective.

Abdel-Hadi’s life and record was intertwined with the major milestones, events and historic transformations of the Muslim Sisterhood and overall Islamic movement. It is also linked to the most prominent central figures in the history of Islamic activism in Egypt and Arab world. She was very close to the households of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and the group’s historic icons; she was in close relations with Al-Banna’s family, wife and daughters, and in fact was the only female not in his family to be present at his home when he was assassinated, when his body was prepared for burial, and as his funeral procession left his house.

She was also closely connected with the women in the households of the second Muslim Brotherhood guide, Hassan Al-Hodeibi, and Qutb, the second most prominent idealogue of the group after its founder Banna. She lived with them through the ordeals of the arrest of their men and the dilemmas of Brotherhood households without their patriarchs. Abdel-Hadi also lived through the ordeal of imprisonment herself with 50 other Sisterhood members, and was a witness to and influential activist in the Muslim women’s movement.

Since her husband was Qutb’s companion during years of incarceration, where they spent most of their time in the prison hospital, Abdel-Hadi’s testimonial of the Islamic movement’s philosopher in the middle of the last century is exceptionally significant. She knew him at close proximity because of her husband’s relationship with him, and was familiar with his personal life through her ties with his sisters, and during her visits with her husband and his companion in prison and hospital. In time, she became a confidante of Qutb and even a go-between for a proposed marriage that failed.

Abdel-Hadi’s testimonial on the 1965 Group, which has earned a prominent place in the history of relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the state, is a unique and exceptional perspective not only because of her proximity and connection to many events and details in these events, but also because she is one of its prominent victims. She experienced prison first hand and her husband was the last of three executed.

Abdel-Hadi’s narrative in My Journey with the Muslim Sisterhood: From Imam Al-Banna to Nasser’s Jails is a little known testimonial in the history of the Islamic movement, in which she attempts to document the most significant and muted events as part of a historic record. Her testimonial covers an important time in the history of the Islamic movement spanning more than three decades, beginning at the end of WWII, through the July revolution and the fall of the monarchy in Egypt, as well as critical years during the Nasser regime and the beginning of Sadat’s rule.

What is unique about her tale is that she presents a very personal insight, even when she discusses events and incidents that formed the history of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt during a very complicated era. She reveals her relations with figures who changed the course of history, some of them executed by hanging while others became presidents of the republic. It is an eyewitness and sometimes firsthand account where she is a protagonist in the events.

Unlike others, Abdel-Hadi does not exaggerate, inflate or improvise even when she relates her personal agony and suffering with her small family. Her young daughter and son lived through the ordeal of their mother’s incarceration, and their father’s imprisonment for many years, and his eventual execution.

Unlike other storylines, such as Zeinab Al-Ghazali’s, Abdel-Hadi’s tale appears to be more authentic as a historic testimonial about the acute conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the 1952 Revolution. What she lived through did not need emotional sensationalisation, or perhaps imaginary embelishments, to convince readers that the Muslim Brotherhood lived through true adversity under Nasser.

The most important aspect of Abdel-Hadi’s testimonial is that it is not purely political, but recounts important milestones in the social history of the Muslim Brotherhood movement — the group’s political dimension continues to overshadow its other facets that are mostly absent in testimonials and memoirs that document the history of the Brotherhood. Reading about Abdel-Hadi’s journey with the Brotherhood is key to understanding the important transformations which occurred in social life in Egypt over half a century, some of whose chapters we continue to live.

Abdel-Hadi’s testimonial spotlights the most important key to many of the critical transformations in the history of Muslim women’s activism, or preaching to women in general. Most significantly, the transformation of the Muslim Sisterhood from a social proselytisation movement into an ideological-political one caused by an even bigger transformation of the Muslim Brotherhood overall.

We find out how the Muslim Sisterhood was primarily focused on society and proselytisation in the beginning with the aim of promoting authentic piety, commitment to good conduct and values through charity, assisting the poor and needy, as well as collecting and distributing alms. Soon, it quickly delved into politics, perhaps as a result of momentous events, including the confrontation with the July Revolution regime, and morphed into a wing of an ideological movement immersed in all forms of politics, its rituals and leading figures.

There is an extensive discussion of the hijab (head veil) and its symbolism in the modern Islamic movement, and also its significance in religiosity and society in Egypt in general. We will be surprised at how it was almost non-existent when the Muslim Sisterhood was a prosetylising social movement before it immersed itself into a political conflict and slipped into the trap of ideology, making the hijab an icon that summarises the definition of faith and piety.

The transformation of the Islamic movement, especially the women’s chapter, into a political ideology required it to have prominent symbols and the hijab, and today’s niqab (face veil), met all the necessary criteria.

Further reading into this transformation reveals why prominent leading female activists in the Islamic movement became less public in the 1970s, such as Abdel-Hadi or Al-Ashmawi, while figures such as Al-Ghazali rose to the fore. The latter was an epitome of the transformation of the Muslim Sisterhood from a social prosetylitision movement into blatant political activism, with its ideological conflicts, components and conspicuous symbols.

Hussam Tammam is a researcher specialised in Islamist movements and ideology.


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