Women are not visibly prominent in Islamist organizations in general, and certainly are not well-represented in the decision-making bodies of these groups. Still, even in Islamist groups that are segregated by sex, which most of them are, women have their own forms of organizations, activities, and institutions. In some ways, women’s roles within groups like the Muslim Brotherhood span a greater part of the spectrum of Islamist activism than is the case for men, and women had the additional force-multiplying effect for Islamists of disguising their organizations as harmless Muslim institutions with social, rather than political, purposes.
Islamist Conceptions of the Role of Women
Women, as a rule, tend to less inclined towards political roles and certainly towards the harsh, fanatical, and conflictual forms of politics. Whatever structural biases there might be, the fact is women are elected less often in the Western world because they stand for elections less often. There is a similar trend with Islamist groups, but the line between social and political is not so easy. The headscarf, for example, is often taken as a marker of Islamist belief, but it is not so. Even if it is true that most Islamist women wear the veil, it is not true that most veiled women are Islamists. These distinctions matter and must be carefully observed.
For the fundamentalist groups, women have an inescapably different social role than men within a delicately calibrated hierarchy, and within the groups themselves the female members—these “rightly guided women”—are positioned directly below the men, but above all other people. Women cannot be “the crown of creation” as the men in Islamist groups are, but second place in this worldview is still above the rest of humanity. And this leads to the paradox of the role: Islamist women occupy organizational roles that are less public than the male members of these groups on the basis that their modesty requires them to be carefully hidden behind their “betters,” yet, since they believe themselves to be part of the vanguard representing “the only true Islam,” these women are also very self-confident, almost imperious.
Women were active early on in the Muslim Brotherhood’s history. They were the wives of male members, of course, but they also took more direct initiative to support the ideology. Women made their impact through social projects and education that lasted for generations afterwards. Still, women tended not to have official roles in the bodies belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Changing Role of Women in Islamist Groups
In recent times, women have sometimes been appointed to bodies controlled by the Brotherhood, but such nominations tend to occur in reaction to perceived expectations of European political decision-makers. For example, last September, three women were appointed to the German branch of the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR), the organization previously headed by the notorious Brotherhood cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. The appointees are: Elham Ghadban, Nada Bsaiso, and Haya Nabulsi. Ghadban was appointed Vice Chair of the Fatwa Committee. According to the fatwa committee, Bsaiso and Nabulsi studied in Jordan. So far, unlike some of the men, they have not appeared in public.
As with men, the associations of women in the Muslim Brotherhood network at various levels foster relationships and tactical partnerships with other, non-Brotherhood women’s associations and clubs. Over the years, a separate women’s Brotherhood network has not only been established in Europe but is trying to exert political influence in Brussels. At this European level, the network is organized as the European Forum of Muslim Women (EFOMW). The EFOMW is closely linked to the former Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe (FIOE), and has members from various European countries. The EFOMW is currently celebrating its fifteenth anniversary, as is also highlighted on the website of the European Council of Muslims (ECM), which is either the successor organization of the FIOE or one of its satellite foundations (it’s not entirely clear which).
Three women’s associations from Germany are worth drawing attention to. One is the Islamic Women’s Association for Education and Parenting (Islamischer Frauenverband für Bildung und Erziehung or IFBED), a member of EFOMW. Second, the With or Without group, styled “WoW e.V.” Third, the Meeting and Training Centre for Muslim Women (Begegnungs und Fortbildungszentrum muslimischer Frauen or BFmF e.V.). These groups, and their interrelationships, should be presented in more detail.
A Look in Detail
The BFmF e.V., based in Cologne, receives public funds from various sources and is broadly supported politically, often though not always in ignorance of the Brotherhood’s role, because of its social activities in caring for Muslim women and migrants. The founder of the BFmF said, while receiving an award in 2011, that his organization is “close to the Central Council of Muslims” or Zentralrat der Muslime (ZMD). The ZMD is dominated by organizations that are within the Muslim Brotherhood orbit, even if these do not represent the majority of the members represented.
Until mid-2020, when the management of the BFmF e.V. rearranged matters, Erika Theissen—who at Muslim events and functions goes by the name Amina Theissen—was, so to speak, the trustee of funds that the group’s own statutes declared it received from Islamic Relief Germany (IRD). According to the Federal Government, Islamic Relief is also part of the Muslim Brotherhood network. Between the formally independent German offshoot of Islamic Relief, IRD, and the British parent organization, Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), there is overlap not only in terms of organizational history, but also, over many years, of personnel.
There are also personal overlaps between the IRD and the German Muslim Community (Deutsche muslimische Gemeinschaft or DMG), which was previously called the Islamic Community in Germany (Islamische Gemeinschaft ind Deutschland or IGD). DMG/IGD is the largest organization in Germany where the Muslim Brotherhood has a controlling role.
An example can be seen in the Syrian-born Almoutaz Tayara, while holding a leading position at IRD and IRW. His wife, Houaida Taraji, worked at both IGD and the IFBED, and was deputy to Ibrahim El Zayat at DMG/IGD. One of Taraji’s sisters, Hiba Taraji, was formerly a board member at EFOMW and also worked in a Frankfurt center co-founded by a brother of El Zayat. As far as the author knows, Taraji is still working for the ZMD.
After the antisemitism scandal last summer at IRD and IRW, some directorships were filled with women. This was in-keeping with the generally cosmetic response of Islamic Relief to this issue. Naming women to such senior roles seems to have been intended to switch the public narrative about an intolerant organization, and it seems to have had some success; that the women named have shown little evidence of public activities for the group is beside the point. Interestingly, though IRW nominally replaced its entire board, there was one exception even to this claim and it was a woman. The one person retained from the old board was Lamia el Amri, a Swedish activist and former chairwoman of EFOMW.
The Messaging Value of Female Participation
WoW e.V. was founded in 2015, originally in Stuttgart, by several people from the Golesorkhi family, including probably the parents of the chairman of the board, Lara-Zuzan Golesorkhi. In addition to offering jute bags with a club motto and a kind of motivational game, courses were held ostensibly to improve Muslim women’s access to the job market. One of the major messaging themes was that all employers should be motivated to employ Muslim women—regardless of whether they wear the headscarf. The project and its chairwoman received considerable attention and praise; prizes and a lot of public funding followed.
What was less remarked upon was that WoW e.V. has become part of the CLAIM network. CLAIM, or the Alliance against Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Hate (Allianz gegen Islam– und Muslimfeindlichkeit) is demonstrably entangled with the Muslim Brotherhood and its satellites and allies.
The purpose of operating under the CLAIM banner is help the Muslim Brotherhood reach a wider audience for recruitment by joining in cooperation with other organizations, to gain access to public funds, and to provide a further layer of immunization from social criticism. These elements interact: reputation management—securing immunity from criticism, and fostering a general belief that CLAIM is doing “good”—is key to its ability to access public money, for example. And this largely works: CLAIM, nor WoW e.V. within it, encounter very little critical scrutiny, whether on social media or in more official forms—the same pattern as we saw with IFBED.
The Muslim Brotherhood might not be familiar with the Western cliché about politics being “downstream from culture,” but they operate as if they believe it: rather than seeking to seize power in one go, the Brotherhood looks to reshape society and then have this change reflected in the state’s politics and policies.
A practical case is the Brotherhood’s attempt to reframe conservative religious attitudes about the necessity of the veil in the secular terms of female emancipation and empowering Muslim women. The attempt is to make the headscarf more acceptable in the majority societies of the West, even to garner active support from certain segments of the population. All the time, great care is taken to avoid attention on the involuntary imposition of the veil, either by direct patriarchal force or by the isolation of women such that they do not understand there is an argument about the role of the veil. The repressive concepts about gender that make the Islamists favor the veil are also never mentioned.
The role of women the Muslim Brotherhood and similar Islamist groups is often misunderstood—and not surprisingly, since these groups take care to misrepresent their purpose as part of their self-presentation to Western governments and societies. But it is important, first, to recognize when women’s groups are connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, and, second, the grave risks of letting such groups be presented as, and included in, the mainstream of a civil society that they ultimately intend to overthrow.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.