NEW YORK: The first time I went to interview the Muslim Brotherhood, in 1995, an officer at their headquarters gave me a headscarf to wear. The second time I went to interview the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2005, no headscarf awaited me.
I was intrigued. I had been living in the United States since 2000, but had heard during visits to Egypt that the Brotherhood, or Al-Ikhwan as they re known in Arabic, were changing. They d become fluent in the lingo of reform and democracy. Phrases like political pluralism were creeping into interviews they gave to the press.
Was this new Brotherhood for real?
The Muslim Brotherhood s leader, Supreme Guide Mohamed Mahdi Akef, started our meeting two years ago by talking about peaceful ways of bringing about change . I admit, I was impressed – until I asked him whether the Muslim Brotherhood, if it ever came to power, would change anything in the Egyptian constitution regarding women s rights.
Arabs who advocate a political system based on Islamic principles may face different challenges, but when it comes to women s rights, they re fairly united in their conservative views. In Kuwait they blocked women s right to vote and run for office until last year. In Jordan they struck down legislation giving women the right to initiate divorce and stood in the way of laws that would toughen sentences handed down for so-called honor crimes. So, would the Egyptian religious conservatives be just as bad for women?
No, Akef replied, and my proof is that although you re naked, you were allowed to enter my office.
I was wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt and pants.
The word naked was particularly grating to my ears because I had worn a headscarf, or hijab, for nine years as a young woman. I chose to wear a hijab at the age of 16, thinking it was a religious requirement, but chose to take it off at 25 after my reading into the issue had convinced me that it was not.
Nevertheless, it took me years to shake off the guilt at rejecting a way of dressing that over the past 15 years has largely become the uniform of Muslim womanhood in Egypt – thanks in no small part to the Muslim Brotherhood s efforts.
Maybe if I hadn t had my own experience with the hijab I might have demurred and brushed off Akef s naked jab. But I d been there, done that, and I was supposedly in the presence of the new and improved Muslim Brotherhood, political pluralism and all. The guilt-trip wasn t going to work on me.
I am not naked, I reminded him. The verses in the Qur an concerning women s dress have been interpreted differently.
According to God s law, you are naked, he replied. Your arms are naked, your head is naked. There is only one interpretation.
One interpretation? So much for pluralism. Clearly, the Muslim Brotherhood had quite some way to go.
As a secular, liberal Egyptian Muslim who defends the right of everyone to take part in the political process, I am painfully aware of the irony of defending the rights of someone whose principles do not extend me such a courtesy. That one interpretation that Akef mentioned was clear proof to my ears that the Muslim Brotherhood continue to act as the guardians of Islam and that anyone who dares to criticize them stands accused of criticizing the religion itself.
But as that same secular, liberal Egyptian Muslim, I believe I must defend the Brotherhood s presence on Egypt s political stage. If I don t, then I am just as guilty as the regime that has for decades sucked the oxygen out of the body politic – and with Gamal Mubarak being groomed to take over the presidency from his aging father, the regime seems set to rule for another generation.
Besides the state, the Brotherhood is the last man standing in Egypt. We re down to the state and the mosque. The Muslim Brotherhood must remain on Egypt s political stage, not least so that its ideas are out in the open and can be challenged.
Despite the Muslim Brotherhood winning 88 seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections, I remain unconvinced that the majority of Egyptians would vote for them in free and fair elections. Less than 22 percent of Egyptians turned out to vote in 2005, which to me says most Egyptians want neither the state nor the mosque. They want a real choice.
Pressured internally by various opponents and street demonstrations and externally by a Washington bent on Arab democratization, the Egyptian regime seemed to bend ever so slightly. But with the Muslim Brotherhood s parliamentary success, President Hosni Mubarak played his bogeyman card, to great success.
It has spent the past two years imprisoning and hounding its critics. Just this week, it banned the Muslim Brotherhood s largest annual social gathering – a gala dinner during Ramadan – for the first time in 20 years. Some 40 members of the group are currently on trial in military court on terrorism and money laundering charges.
That bogeyman card will continue to be a sure bet for the Egyptian regime, so long as there s not enough room for everyone on Egypt s political stage. So, naked as I am, I ll continue to defend the Muslim Brotherhood s right to be on that stage.
Mona Eltahawyis a New York-based writer. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org. This article originally appeared in The Forward (www.forward.com), America s national Jewish newspaper.