The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has recognized the pivotal role of women in the organization at an early stage. Hassan Al-Banna established the Muslim Sisters branch in 1933 and since then the role of women in the organization has evolved from missionary activity, through recruitment, to confronting Egyptian security forces after the 30 June 2013 Revolution, participating in terrorist attacks by inciting violence, providing funds, and delivering information.
In light of Egypt’s decisive measures against the MB, the group is likely to increase its dependenسce on the Muslim Sisters in a desperate attempt to target the security and stability of Egypt. This raises important questions about the perils of women joining terrorist organizations, as well as the evolution of the role of the Sisters within the terrorist Brotherhood group, and the escalation of their terrorist activities following the 30 June Revolution.
The perils of women joining terrorist organizations
The real danger of women joining terrorist organizations is the central relation between women and society. Women form a network in which they lie at the ceter. They play multiple roles, including the role of a mother, sister, daughter, or wife. They have the ability to communicate with and influence half of society. Women are more likely to accept radical or extremist ideas than men, due to their reliance on the driving emotion of vengeance and the desire for revenge.
Terrorist groups are aware of the symbolic and strategic importance of women, so they have used them optimally, by undertaking multiple roles such as recruiting, collecting donations, delivering information, and sometimes carrying weapons. The symbolic importance of women contributes to legitimizing terrorist groups, due to their success in attracting a large number of women, while the strategic importance of women is evident in women’s embrace of the ideas of the organization, which means the ideological transfer of these ideas to future generations when they raise their children. Not to mention they can avoid many searches that men are exposed to, as there is a different treatment of security to women, due to religious, cultural and social considerations. In Arab and Islamic societies, women enjoy privacy that keeps them above suspicion.
The Brotherhood developed an organizational structure for the Muslim Sisters to activate their roles and organize their work in pursuit of the group’s interests. Accordingly, a number of committees were formed, most notably: the Education and Families Committee, which is responsible for the educational rehabilitation of sisters, by teaching a number of religious curricula related to the group’s literature. The Individual Daawa (Calling) Committee is the key driver of the sisters’ activity. It is where they are trained to attract other women to the group. The committee comprises two important divisions: The first is the “Al Zahrawat” division, specializing in attracting females in the early stages of life, such as primary and middle school students. The second division is the “Fatayat”, or girls, which targets high school and university students in an effort to spread the group’s extremist ideology.
Experts argue that among the most important reasons for the survival of the terrorist Brotherhood, despite all the security and political blows it has suffered, since its fall in Egypt on 30 June 2013, is the presence of a large group of women in the organization, representing the backbone of the MB, as their ranks did not witness any significant defections. In other words, despite the occurrence of many historical and contemporary fissures among the ranks of the MB, it did not affect the ranks of the Muslim Sisters, taking into account their pivotal role in the organization on one hand, and their increasing numbers on the other. In short, the Sisters is a second defense line that ensures the survival of the movement in times of crises.
The Muslim Sisters: A parallel path
The Muslim Sisters forms a large section in the terrorist Brotherhood, but there are no available statistics about their numbers. Some estimates put them at about 30 percent of the group’s members, while other estimates indicated that they are more than 40 percent. By tracing the stages of the development of the role of the Sisters within the organization, the first Muslim Sisters department was established in 1933 from Brotherhood women, their daughters, and their female relatives.
The formation of a Sisters branch is a clear contradiction to the ideas of Hassan Al-Banna, who refused to give women their rights and worked on undermining their freedom. Al-Banna said that “Women do not need to study different languages, and they do not need special technical studies. They will soon know that women have to stay at home.” This can be explained in light of the pragmatism that characterizes Al-Banna. Although he is not convinced of the importance of women’s rights, he found an imperative to use them in order to achieve the group’s goals.
The first female head of that division was Labiba Ahmed, followed by Amal Al-Ashmawi, Naima Al-Hudhaibi, Fatima Abdul-Hadi, and Zainab Al-Ghazali. With the beginning of the establishment of the Sisters branch, the role of women was limited to raising children and caring for the family. However, this role witnessed a later development towards political action in 1944, which saw the launch of the first executive committee of the Muslim Sisters, which played an active role in the extension of the Sisters’ daawa in public places, streets, institutions, government agencies, and more.
In this context, it is worth mentioning one of the most important female terrorist leaders within the organization at that time, Zainab Al-Ghazali, who raised an ostensible slogan for charitable work, joined in executing a number of terrorist operations, the most important of which was the founding of Organization 65, which was accused of planning the assassination of the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, and striking vital installations with the aim of seizing power. She was sentenced to death by hanging in this case, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and then she was released during the era of the late president Mohamed Sadat. After her release, she issued her book “Days of My Life”, which was welcomed by the Muslim Brotherhood who transformed the writer into an “icon” and a jihadist feminist symbol. The book is a biography of jihadism full of Qutbist concepts and stories about the Brotherhood being victims of injustice.
The 1950s and 1960s represented two of the most difficult periods in the Brotherhood’s history due to the arrests of the most important leaders of the group, and here the role of the Muslim Sisters shifted to collecting donations and delivering them to the homes of imprisoned or fugitive Brotherhood members. The social activities of the Sisters contributed to the establishment of a strong and vast network among Brotherhood families, which provided financial and moral support for the families of imprisoned members.
At the beginning of the establishment of the Sisters division, its basic roles were focused on daawa and healthcare and social activities. However, these roles took a strategic dimension when there were direct confrontations with the authorities, as the essence of the Sisters’ mission was to help the movement survive harsh security strikes against its leadership.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the role of the Sisters emerged in mobilizing women to vote in the election and standing before committees to make propaganda for their candidates. The Sisters also worked on attracting all girls who are eligible to vote. There is no doubt that 2005 witnessed a development in the role of the Sisters; a role that led the Brotherhood to win 88 seats in the People’s Assembly elections at the time.
With the events of January 2011, the sweeping emergence of the Sisters began. The Guidance Bureau saw it was inevitable to push and use women in parliamentary and municipal elections, due to their high number, which is close to twice the male voting mass. With the beginning of 2011, a large number of the Sisters ran for the Shura Council elections, and not a few of them succeeded, in addition to the participation of nearly three Muslim Sisters members in the Constituent Assembly for the drafting of the 2012 constitution, not to mention the participation of some of them in the parliament of 2012, which was subsequently dissolved.
Hence, the role of women in the organization is determined according to the ruling context and the circumstances surrounding the group. Women’s role shifted from caring for the family at the beginning of the group’s founding, to daawa, mobilization, and expansion. It developed into moral and material support in times of adversity, and has emerged strongly in election mobilization during the organization’s political rise. It has recently been apparent in participating in terrorist operations following the overthrow of the rule of the terrorist Brotherhood.
The role of the “Bloody Sisters”
Following the 30 June Revolution, the violence of the Sisters emerged. They began to be employed in terrorist operations against the Egyptian state, their tasks were apparent in several roles:
Violence and incitement: The Sisters’ violence escalated dramatically in the wake of the 30 June Revolution, and this was evidenced by their intense activities in universities, especially Al-Azhar University, where the Sisters carried out many manifestations of violence in the university, the most notable of which were: Surrounding the deans’ offices, closing the main university gates with chains, attacking police officers, and clashing with a number of professors. A woman named Samia Shenan participated in the “Kerdasa massacre” by mutilating the bodies of officers after their death at the Kerdasa police station, encouraging gunmen to vandalize police armored vehicles and setting fire to the police station. In February 2015, the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced her to death, but the court accepted an appeal and commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. That is not to mention the renewal of detention of Aisha Khairat Al-Shater in August 2019 for inciting violence and sabotage against the state, and incitement to harm the national economy.
Worth mentioning is the statement of Azza Tawfiq (Khairat Al-Shater’s wife), after the 30 June Revolution. She said the Egyptian army has 20 hours to work on restoring the Brotherhood leaders to power, otherwise Egypt will turn into a pool of blood. She added that 20,000 mujahideen on the Egyptian border were ready to move in.
• Electronic committees: The Sisters sought to target and devastate state institutions by spreading rumors. Investigations in Supreme State Security case 485/2015, known in the media as the case of the “Electronic and Media Committees of the International Brotherhood Organization,” in which a number of Muslim Brotherhood women were involved, revealed an agreement between leaders of the International Brotherhood Organization, who fled the country, to incite against state institutions and public facilities, aiming at overthrowing the existing regime. Within this framework, the organization’s electronic committees were activated to implement this scheme by spreading rumors to disturb peace and public security, and to incite terrorist operations against judges, police personnel and officers, the Armed Forces, and public and vital installations.
Establishing connections: In the current period of the group’s history, the Sisters acts as a link between the terrorist organization’s elements at home and abroad in order to deliver assignments and information. The Sisters also carry out the task of coordinating between the Brotherhood’s free cadres and locked up leaderships.
These women include Sundus Essam Shalabi, the daughter of Brotherhood leader Essam Shalabi, who was sentenced to death in the intelligence case, as well as Basma Refaat Abdel-Moneim Mohamed Rabie, who was involved in the assassination of the prosecutor-general “Hisham Barakat.” Rabie was in charge of communicating with Brotherhood member Yehia Moussa, who fled to Turkey and assigned the members of the group to assassinate Barakat. The Cairo Criminal Court sentenced her to 15 years in prison.
• Funding terrorism: The Sisters play a pivotal role in gathering the necessary funding for operations under the guise of charitable works and receiving funds from abroad through bank accounts away from eyes of the security forces. A number of active female elements in the organization were arrested, most notably Ola Al-Qaradawi, who is accused of funding the terrorist organization and participating in implementing a scheme prepared by the Brotherhood to fund violent groups in Egypt. Investigations conducted by the Supreme State Security Prosecution in Egypt in case 316/2017 revealed that she was in charge of direct support for the group’s members and funding their arming. She was receiving direct assignments related to the financial statements and bank account numbers unknown to a large number of leaders of the group.
Terrorist schools: Brotherhood members’ mothers have turned into “terrorist schools” that nurture extremism in the minds of their children and plant the seeds of terrorism in them, motivated by feelings of hatred for the state and the desire to disrupt its stability and security. After the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, Brotherhood members’ mothers appeared to praise their sons who participate in terrorist operations, the most prominent of whom are: the mother of terrorist Abdel-Rahman Khaled Mahmoud, who carried out the attack against the National Cancer Institute, which left more than 20 martyrs and nearly 50 wounded. The Ministry of Interior revealed a video that showed a meeting between Mahmoud and his mother as she encouraged him to carry out the terrorist operation. Likewise, the mother of terrorist Ahmed Mohamed Al-Degwi praised her son’s role in the assassination of former prosecutor-general Hisham Barakat, in a call-in with one of the Brotherhood’s channels. There are others who bless their sons for carrying out terrorist and suicide operations.
In sum, terrorist organizations resort to relying on women when they go through a period of decline and retreat. The Brotherhood has recently followed a method of relying on women to implement the Brotherhood’s terrorist plans in the Egyptian society. Hence, a distinction must be made between women’s participation in terrorist activities and the societal perception of her. In other words, our view of the terrorist women’s scene should not be subject to customs and traditions, but rather viewed as a threat to the security and fate of the nation. Likewise, the role of women in terrorist organizations should not be limited to the role of the victim only by highlighting the violent practices towards them, and neglecting their role as a terrorist actor who decided to join terrorist organizations with their own free will.
In light of the structural challenges the Brotherhood is experiencing, the Brotherhood is likely to increase its reliance on the female elements in the mobilization against the Egyptian state during the coming period by establishing a number of pages on social media to stir incitement against state institutions and call for the mobilization in the street.