Islam and women: an Egyptian speaks out

``God has placed the Islamic peoples in a dominant position. . . . This is why Muslims are now returning to their religion, so that they can attain the position God ordained for them.'' So says Zaynab Al-Ghazali, who, since the 1930s, has devoted her energies to expounding a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law to women in her native Egypt.

Since 1949, Zaynab Ghazali has been the leader of Egypt's activist Muslim Sisterhood -- which, with its militant male counterpart, the Muslim Brotherhood, is seen as an unofficial opposition party to her country's secular regime. From 1965 to 1971 she was imprisoned and reportedly tortured for advocating the institution of an Islamic society in Egypt -- part of a general clampdown on religious fundamentalists by former President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Interviewed recently in her fashionable Cairo apartment, Hagga (a term of respect indicating that she has made the pilgrimage to Mecca) Zaynab displayed the iron determination of one who has given her every waking moment to a cause, and the inner stillness of one who is wholly convinced that she is right.

In keeping with the strictest interpretation of Islamic law, Hagga Zaynab dresses entirely in white robes, with only her face, hands, and sandal-clad feet uncovered. Before the interview began, she specified the topics she was willing to discuss -- and those she was not.

``If you intend to interview me on social conditions, that's not what I want to talk about,'' she began. ``I want to talk about my Islamic views and nothing else -- only religious matters.'' Yet, when the hour was over, she had touched on a variety of subjects.

Could you give a brief description of your background and your past activities?

I am a religious woman. I found that my religion is the best. Islam is the best, because it makes women and men equal. Since I was 18 years old I have had the role of making people understand what Islam means to women and what women are in relation to Islam. I am now 68 and I am still doing the same thing.

What is the role of the true Muslim woman?

She does what the man does in terms of her religious practices. She must be a wife and look after her children. And our religion does not prevent her from working outside the home -- if she needs to.

What are some differences between a devout Muslim woman and one who is more modern?

(Hagga Zaynab eyes her interpreter's raspberry pink, short-sleeved dress sternly.) Modern women like you for example: If you don't go back to your religion and dress as I do, you'll go to hell. Even if you're a good Muslim and you pray and do what is right, if you dress the way you do all your good deeds will be canceled out.

Our religion is organized in everything: politically, economically -- in everything there is order. In war, in peace, there is order. And there's also order in the way women and men should dress.

What about polygamy?

It's allowed in our religion. A man can marry more than one woman depending on his needs and his ability to afford it, because he has to support all his wives equally and treat them equally.

In non-Islamic countries many women have children out of wedlock. This is wrong. In Islam the man can marry four women and the children are all legitimate.

How does a woman feel when her husband takes a second wife?

[In Egypt] in every 10,000 men, only two might marry more than one wife. If that happens, the man has to be able to afford it financially. When he does marry a second time, of course his first wife is going to be upset. In return he has to help her, comfort her.

And he only marries [again] if he really has to, if his first wife is sick, for example. But since Islam cares about people, the man doesn't divorce his first wife. And Islam does not allow extramarital relations. Extramarital or premarital relations are punishable by death.

Is this true even today?

Yes. If Islam were strong enough today, this would be enforced. However, the Islamic government must provide everything for the people -- their food, education, money to get married -- before you can enforce any rules. If a person has everything the government provides and still does wrong, then he must be punished. But these rules cannot be enforced until the person is totally provided for by the government.

Does a man have control over a woman in the family?

It's not a matter of the man being stronger so that he tells her what to do. No. He is responsible for her. If she is not working and she doesn't have a way of making money, then it's an Islamic law that her father, her brother, her grandfather, her uncle, or her cousin has to support her.

Could a devout Muslim woman have a career in public life?

She has the right to work at anything she wants to. She can be in politics, in agriculture, commerce, anything. But her main role is to be a wife and mother. As long as she can maintain both of these roles she can also work. But she also has to teach Islam to her children. . . .

Egyptian women have said they wait on their husbands hand and foot in order to keep peace in the home.

This is a mistake. These people don't know their religion. If a man does not get someone to help his wife, he's doing something wrong. Those are the rules.

Is it all right for a man and a woman who are not married to see each other socially, on a date for example?

No. The only way for a woman to get close to a man -- I mean close in terms of emotions and love -- is that he has to be her husband.

Can a woman decide not to marry if she chooses?

She's free to decide [if] she wants to marry or not.

Can she practice birth control?

It's up to her, but the husband and wife have to agree. The man cannot impose anything on her in terms of having children and she cannot take away his rights by not giving him a child. Islam encourages them to have children, to become a bigger society. Islam does not agree with birth control, except for reasons of health. Only [then] does Islam allow a woman not to have children.

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