CAIRO – For the first time, a woman is running for the leadership of the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful Islamist group. Sabah el-Saqari says she wants to increase female participation in politics and even defends a woman's right to run for president, a stance her organization rejects.
But liberals who fear Islamist rule will set back women's rights say her candidacy is just an attempt by the Brotherhood to improve its image.
A 22-year veteran of the Brotherhood, al-Saqari is running to become chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, which the Brotherhood set up after the fall of autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak in February last year. The party has become the vehicle through which the Brotherhood – banned and oppressed for decades under Mubarak – has rode to power, triumphing over the activists and progressive forces that led the revolution.
The internal party election, scheduled for Oct. 19, is to replace Mohammed Morsi, who held the chairman post until he took office in late June as Egypt's first freely elected president.
Al-Saqari's candidacy is largely symbolic. She is seen as having no chance to win in the face of two heavyweight candidates competing for the post – senior Brotherhood figures Essam el-Erian and Saad el-Katatni. A lesser known party member, Khaled Awda, is also running.
But the move is an unprecedented bid for a woman to enter the entirely male halls of power in the Brotherhood. The party did have female lawmakers in the first parliament formed after the revolution – which has since been dissolved – but men have completely monopolized the decision-making bodies and leadership posts of the party and the Brotherhood itself.
Liberals are not impressed, calling her candidacy a cynical attempt by the Brotherhood to promote a misleading view of its stance on women.
"They are still using women as decor," said Nehad Abou-Qomsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights.
The Brotherhood contends that it supports women's participation in politics, business and other parts of public life. But it also advocates a strongly traditional role for women as mothers and wives, and contends that equality cannot undermine that role or contradict Islamic Shariah law.
Islamists are currently in a fierce political battle with liberal and secular forces in post-revolutionary Egypt, particularly over a new constitution. The Brotherhood and more conservative Islamists hold a majority on the assembly that is writing the charter, and liberals say they have been trying to introduce measures that would open the door for implementing a strict version of Islamic law and restrictions on women's rights.
In an interview with Associated Press, al-Saqari echoed the Brotherhood's conservative views, saying that Shariah laws are the top parameter. She argued that she can't call for a law banning female genital circumcision or limiting the marriage age for girls to prevent child marriage.
But she insisted women have a right to run for president. The Brotherhood long said a woman or Christian could not be head of state in Muslim-majority Egypt, but since Mubarak's fall it has softened that stance somewhat, saying it would not seek to write such a ban into law though it would not itself support a woman or Christian president.
"I want to see more political participation by women," said al-Saqari, a 49-year-old pharmacist who like most Egyptian Muslim women wears the conservative headscarf. "I have political rights and I want to use (them)."
"There is a political culture in Egypt that doesn't accept women as presidents, but I have the right to run for presidency."
Other prominent women in the Brotherhood have raised controversy recently with statements encouraging female genital mutilation, known as "circumcision" in Egypt, where it remains widespread despite attempts under Mubarak's regime to curtail it. Some Egyptian religious conservatives say it is required by Islam, though the majority of the Muslim world does not practice it.
Asked about the practice, al-Saqari avoided a direct response but said it and the issue of child marriage could not be dealt with through legislation.
"We leave it to the doctor to decide whether this girl needs FGM or not. I am not the one to decide, laws won't work," she said. "The way here is not through laws but through awareness," she said, concerning laws setting a minimum age for marriage. Egyptian law currently sets a minimum age of 18, but some ultraconservatives have argued that Islam allows girls to marry as young as puberty and that the law must allow it.
Bahy Eddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, said al-Saqari's candidacy "is totally contradictory to the genuine beliefs of the Muslim Brotherhood on the role of women ... They don't believe that women and men are equal and that they should be treated on equal footing--in the constitution, in any laws."
"The Muslim Brotherhood is very concerned with its image with the West, but not with the Egyptian people," he said. "They are doing their best to market themselves to the West and this is their most recent means of doing so."
Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan dismissed the criticism, saying her candidacy shows the group promotes women.
"They say that the Muslim Brotherhood does not encourage women to participate in politics. And when women do participate in our party, (the activists) criticize us," he said. "We are at a loss, what should we do? We cannot please them."
Hilmi el-Gazzar, a senior Brotherhood member, said al-Saqari faces a tough race, pointing to her inexperience in comparison to el-Katatni and el-Erian, who have served as head of parliament and interim head of the party, respectively. But her "candidacy is encouraging because it indicates the direction of our party. We are ready to have her as a candidate, and if she wins the elections, we will be ready for her to be our chair."
But "if she does not succeed in this race she will profit from the experience in the near future," he said. He said he encourages her to become a member of the party's executive office.
The new chairman will be elected by the Freedom and Justice Party's 1,000-member General Assembly. Party spokesman were unsure how many women are on the assembly, but said they are fewer than 100.