CAIRO (Reuters) - In homes and streets around Egypt, women are keeping alive a group the authorities are determined to crush. They teach Muslim Brotherhood values to children, organize its protests, preserve its networks, and take an ever more prominent role in politics.
The Brotherhood has been in retreat since the army overthrew elected Islamist President Mohammed Mursi in July 2013, launching a crackdown that has seen it banned as a terrorist group and thousands of its members jailed.
With most Brotherhood leaders in jail or exile, women who have long lived in their shadow have been thrust into the vanguard of the organization’s battle for survival.
Long accustomed to a supportive role focused on education and social work, the experience of the past 17 months, however bitter, has imbued the female members of the Muslim Brotherhood, known as Muslim Sisters, with new confidence.
In a patriarchal and conservative movement, it is unclear how far they can go, but for many, there is no turning back.
“Our experience has shown that we can lead. We might make mistakes but we fix them and move on and that’s better than standing on the sidelines,” said Heba, a Muslim Sister in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria. “We won’t go back.”
Established by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, the Brotherhood created a women’s division as early as the 1930s.
Eight decades on, it has fielded women in parliamentary elections and a woman, Pakinam Sharkawy, served as presidential adviser during Mursi’s turbulent year in power.
But women are not permitted into its highest office, the Guidance Bureau. They take part in internal elections at local level, but can neither run nor vote in elections for the shura council, the group’s policy-making body.
Influential Sisters say that could change as the leadership, cut off from its base, relies increasingly on women and youth as its links with society.
“They made a council composed of women... and when they want to do anything they consult,” said Wafa Hefny, Banna’s granddaughter and an influential voice in the movement.
“This group started sitting directly with the official in charge of women in the Guidance Bureau. This is present now as a link between base and summit... They are treating women now as the ones who can take the pulse of what can and cannot be done. This is an excellent step for women.”
Though some women have been arrested, police appear more hesitant to act against them than male Muslim Brotherhood members, giving them freedom to join demonstrations and preserve group cohesion through regular meetings.
Protests have dwindled as arrests mounted, but women now take center stage. In three Cairo areas, Hefny said, an experiment is underway where women organize protests “A to Z”.
The need to organize locally to avoid arrest has allowed an unprecedented level of decentralization in the hierarchical group, giving women and youth followers a new freedom to act.
“The men are mostly absent so without women there are no protests,” said another Sister based in Alexandria. “This is the truth and they have admitted it several times. They say without you it won’t work.”
Though women were instrumental in keeping the Brotherhood alive during a previous bout of repression in the 1950s and 1960s, they faded into the background as pressure eased.
Khalil al-Anani, an expert in Islamist groups at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, said the growing prominence of women was significant, but it was unclear if it could bring any evolution in the hierarchy.
“The role of women has been driven by crisis not ideological change but this could lead to revisions in future,” he said. “The Muslim Brotherhood is in a transitional period.”
Sisters say their role is already evolving. Women are now elected to lead all-women usras, local groups that are the building blocks of the group. Previously, wives of usra leaders acted as informal deputies for women.
In some areas, women are elected to lead women’s shubas, which are each responsible for dozens of usras, although women continue to focus on teaching girls how to be good wives and mothers and ambassadors for the Muslim Brotherhood in society.
Some said moves were already afoot for women to join the shura council before the crackdown threw the group into survival mode and that they would continue to press for more power.
“There are two things we insist on... On the level of the organization, we want to be represented strongly in the shura and the Guidance Bureau,” said Hefny, an English professor and shuba leader.
Divisions remain deep over whether a woman should lead men, or could occupy the role of General Guide itself. Even women who want reform say their role as wives and mothers is paramount.
But the crisis has thrust change upon Islamist women, wanted or not. For many, the fight is personal.
Sitting in her husband’s office in Alexandria, Shaimaa describes how her life has changed since the arrest of her husband, rights lawyer Khalaf Bayoumy, in September 2013, and her 16-year-old-son and brother five months later.
Having trained as a lawyer and then put off practicing while she raised her family, Shaimaa has now taken on her husband’s caseload and is the main breadwinner as well as carer for her two younger sons while attending to prison visits and legal aid.
“The woman has lost her role as a woman, particularly as a lot of women from Islamist currents didn’t think about working before,” she said. “I am one example of many.”
Additional reporting by Abdel Rahman Youssef in Alexandria; editing by Philippa Fletcher