The Muslim Brotherhood's war on women

  • Article by: JEFFREY GOLDBERG , Bloomberg News 
  • Updated: March 25, 2013 - 7:53 PM

Some stakeholders in the Middle East think the West is naive not to be more wary of the changes that are taking place there.

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A girl with the colors of Egypt's national flag and Arabic that reads, "Egypt, Morsi," painted on her face attended a demonstration in Cairo in December 2012.

Photo: Nasser Nasser, AP

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King Abdullah II of Jordan, a member of the dwindling band of Arab leaders who have somehow stayed in power despite the rise of what he calls a “Muslim Brotherhood crescent” across the Middle East, made an acute observation to me recently about the tactical immaturity of the Brotherhood’s leadership.

We were talking about the rise of political Islam in the region when the king made an unflattering comparison between Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist prime minister of Turkey, and Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brother who is president of Egypt. The Brotherhood is an international movement, but it was founded in Egypt, and its leader, the supreme guide, sits there today.

Abdullah made it clear that he doesn’t particularly like either Erdogan or Morsi but that he distrusts the Turk more because he is cannier. Both men seek absolute power, Abdullah believes, but Erdogan is taking a slower, more deliberate approach. “Morsi wanted to do it overnight,” Abdullah said.

The king, among other Arab leaders, is worried that the Obama administration has an overly naive view of the Brotherhood and of other Islamist leaders. Some Westerners, he said, argue that “the only way you can have democracy is through the Muslim Brotherhood.”

He made these comments to me a couple of months ago. But the truth of his argument about the Brotherhood’s extremism — and impatience — was borne out anew recently when the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt issued an extraordinary, and extraordinarily disturbing, rejoinder to the draft of a declaration calling for an end to violence against women that eventually was passed at the annual session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

In an official statement responding to the draft, the Brotherhood argued that, if approved, it would “lead to complete disintegration of society, and would certainly be the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries, eliminating the moral specificity that helps preserve cohesion of Islamic societies.”

The Brotherhood’s objections to this anodyne document were many. Some of the criticisms could be understood within a broader Egyptian cultural framework: The U.N. document calls for equality in inheritance laws, and no political party in Egypt has argued that daughters should have parity of inheritance with sons.

Other criticisms seem more retrograde. Still others are flat-out brutal. The Muslim Brothers object to the idea of “granting girls full sexual freedom” and to raising the legal marriage age, which in some countries is as low as 15. They believe that providing contraceptives to adolescent girls is dangerous, and that granting “equal rights to adulterous wives and illegitimate sons resulting from adulterous relationships” is reprehensible.

They believe, of course, that granting “equal rights to homosexuals” and “providing protection and respect for prostitutes” are terrible ideas. They are shocked by the argument that wives should have the right to file legal complaints against husbands for rape. They raised objections to the idea that men should share in housework and child-care responsibilities, and that men should no longer be allowed to decide whether their wives travel, work or use contraception.

In sum, the Brotherhood’s rebuttal is a remarkable document and evidence that the movement simply cannot wait to wage war on women.

Morsi hasn’t fulfilled his pledge to appoint a woman as one of his vice presidents. When I last interviewed him, before he took office, I asked him if the Brotherhood could support a woman, or a Christian, for president.

“Which Christian?” he asked. I explained that I was asking a theoretical question. Could any Christian become president? “There are no Christians running for president,” he said. “This is a nonsense question.” So I asked him if he could support a woman for president. “Which woman?”

This tragicomic dialogue went on for some time, before I gave up.

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