The Syrian uprising has given the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) a chance to emerge as an integral part of the opposition. Following years in exile, leadership crises, and numerous political challenges, the group is now a central political player in the country. Interestingly, though, women are becoming an important part of the Muslim Brotherhood. Commonly referred to as the “Syrian Sisterhood,” these women are taking on an increasingly bigger role both within the organization and in its national role. Most recently, six women were elected to the group’s Majlis al-Shura, or consultative body, two of whom now form part of the organization’s leadership—a number set to rapidly grow according to a source close to the leaders.
The roots of Syrian women’s involvement into the Muslim Brotherhood go back to the early 1950s when the young activist Amina Sheikha met Mustapha al-Sibai, the Syrian group’s charismatic leader, and then decided to set up a Syrian Sisterhood tasked with recruiting female members. At the time, the Syrian Sisters reportedly held a leading role in terms of organization and influence at the top echelons of the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision-making circles, but the brutal state repression of the late seventies and early eighties put a temporary break on their activities.
“Given the security situation, a few of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders did not believe in the usefulness of women’s participation in the leadership,” remembers one leading member of the Syrian Sisterhood. Prominent female activists rapidly became the targets of the intelligence services for their political ideas or, more perniciously, for their family links to leaders of the organization. This is what happened to Banan al-Tantawi, the wife of former head of the Muslim Brotherhood Issam al-Attar, when she was assassinated at her home in her husband’s absence in March 1981. Hibah al-Dabbagh—another prominent female Islamist activist—documented the type of torture she underwent during the nine years she spent in prison for refusing to reveal the exact whereabouts of her brother who was active in Hama. “Until today, these women provide us with vivid examples of sacrifice for the sake of challenging the oppressor,” said a current member of the Syrian Sisterhood .
By the early 2000s, Syria's Muslim Brotherhood had survived years of exile and internal struggle and had managed to restructure itself and become more active in opposition circles abroad. It was precisely then that the women activists re-emerged in the organization as a powerful force to be reckoned with. From Jordan especially, the Syrian Sisters took on a more prominent role in the group’s growing philanthropic and charitable activities—setting up civil society organizations to provide services to the exiled Syrian community. When the Arab Spring reached Syria and turned violent, pushing many to seek refuge abroad, these charities formed the backbone of the Muslim Brotherhood’s relief efforts—which have helped women heighten their profile within the organization and reach leadership positions.
The prominence of the Syrian Sisters is also growing within the Muslim Brotherhood’s “youth branch”—they reportedly1 make up about 10 percent of the membership. When a three-day meeting of the youth branch was organized in Istanbul in December 2012, these young female Islamist activists emerged as the voice of innovation. Among their ideas were a program designed to provide micro-credit to merchants wishing to restart businesses in rebel-held areas and one aimed at rehabilitating women raped by the shabiha. Some of these Syrian Sisters are also active in the production of the Muslim Brotherhood’s newspaper, al-Ahd (“the Vow”), which began distribution in rebel-held areas in February 2013. But though active outside the country, their eventual return to Syria will require the Sisters to compete for influence with the mysterious Qubaysiyat.
A mystical religious movement emphasizing women’s role in Islamic life, the Qubaysiyat were founded by Munira al-Qubaysi—hence the name—and have gained significant traction over the last decade, rapidly assuming such a highly influential role in Syrian society that, by the late 2000s, the movement was estimated to control at least half of the religious schools in Damascus devoted to women’s education. Given Munira al-Qubaysi’s commitment to keep away from politics, the Syrian regime allowed her movement to operate more openly in many of the country’s mosques, thereby implicitly giving it approval. “Yes, the Qubaysiyat deserve credit for inviting women to religiosity during the rule of the Syrian regime—urging them to memorize the Quran and to wear the hijab while also paying special attention to the spiritual side of Islam,” acknowledged one woman active in the Syrian Brotherhood whose two aunts and their daughters are members of the Qubaysiyat. “However,” she added, “the group avoided going into politics and was supportive of the regime.”
The apolitical nature of the organization is the single most important difference with the Muslim Brotherhood. “We believe, as Muslims and Sisters, that we are God’s heirs on this earth to make it a better place for mankind,” explained one female member. “While we focus on upholding His creation by getting involved in politics, spirituality, economics in order to promote the value of justice, the Qubaysiyat are for their part devoted to a culture of self-distancing from indulging in anything that causes unrest, solely focused on the relationship with the Creator and committed to building a strong organization based on hierarchy and obedience to a near-sacred leadership.” The contrast between the two groups could not have been starker than in the wake of the Arab Spring in Syria: “A sizeable proportion of Qubaysiyat did not support the revolution—claiming that the rebels put the lives of the Syrian people at risk because of their excessive interest in this worldly life while they should be more ascetic to save their souls,” explained one Islamist activist with access to the Qubaysiyat.
There are, however, reports that attest to a small but increasing number of Qubaysiyat leaving the movement to join the revolution and the Muslim Sisterhood. “Many of these female Islamist activists initially joined the movement simply because it offered a safe way to read and learn the Quran,” notes a young Syrian Sister. “Now they realize Islam is also about building a civilization.” Defection to the Sisters—and consequently to the Brotherhood—could have significant consequences for the future of the Syrian uprisings, especially in Damascus, where many businessmen with ties to the regime have wives, daughters, or sisters who are part of the Qubaysiyat. Such an exodus would aid rebuilding the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in the capital—through the Sisterhood wing.
Raphaël Lefèvre is a Gates Scholar and a Ph. D. student in international relations at the University of Cambridge where he specializes on political Islam in Lebanon and Syria. He is the author of Ashes of Hama: the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria (London, Hurst, 2013.)
1 Author’s interviews with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s youth wing.