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GHAZALI, ZAYNAB AL- (b. 1917), prominent writer and teacher of the Muslim Brotherhood, founder of the Muslim Women’s Association (1936-1964). The daughter of an al-Azhar-educated independent religious teacher and cotton merchant, she was privately tutored in Islamic studies in the home in addition to attending public school through the secondary level, and she obtained certificates in hadith, preaching, and Qur’anic exegesis. Her father encouraged her to become an Islamic leader, citing the example of Nusaybah bint Ka’b alMaziniyah, a woman who fought alongside the Prophet in the Battle of Uhud. Although for a short time she joined Huda Sha’rawi’s Egyptian Feminist Union, she came to see this as a mistaken path for women, believing that women’s rights were guaranteed in Islam. [See the biography of Sha’rawi.] At the age of eighteen she founded the Jama’at al-Sayyidat al-Muslimat (Muslim Women’s Association), which, she claims, had a membership of three million throughout the country by the time it was dissolved by government order in 1964. Her weekly lectures to women at the Ibn Tulun Mosque drew a crowd of three thousand, which grew to five thousand during the holy months of the year (interview with the author, 13 September 1988). Besides offering lessons for women, the association published a magazine, maintained an orphanage, offered assistance to poor families, and mediated family disputes. The association also took a political stance, demanding that Egypt be ruled by the Qur’an.

The similar goals of the Muslim Brotherhood were noted by its founder, Hasan al-Banna’, who requested that al-Ghazali’s association merge with the Muslim Sisters, the women’s branch of his organization. She refused until 1949, shortly before al-Banna’s assassination, when, sensing that it was critical for all Muslims to unite behind al-Banna’s leadership, she gave him her oath of allegiance and offered him her association. He accepted her oath and said that the Muslim Women’s Association could remain independent. [See the biography of al -Banna’.] During the 1950s the Muslim Women’s Association cooperated with the Muslim Sisters to provide for families who had lost wealth and family members as a result of Nasser’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Ghazali was instrumental in regrouping the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1960s. Imprisoned for her activities in 1965, she was sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor but was released under Anwar el-Sadat’s presidency in 1971. She describes her prison experiences, which included suffering many heinous forms of torture, in a book entitled Ayydm min hayati (Days from My Life; Cairo and Beirut, 1977). She depicts herself as enduring torture with strength beyond that of most men, and she attests to both miracles and visions that strengthened her and enabled her to survive. She sees herself as the object of President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s personal hatred, for she and her colleague `Abd alFattah Isma’il “robbed” him of the generation that had been raised on his propaganda (p. 185). She believes that the superpowers were involved in singling her out to Nasser as a threat, and indeed she affirms that Islam’s mission means the annihilation of the power of the United States and the Soviet Union (p. 185). Nonetheless, she denies that the Muslim Brotherhood intended to assassinate Nasser, for “killing the unjust ruler does not do away with the problem” of a society that needs to be entirely reeducated in Islamic values. In her book she condemns tactics of murder, torture, and terrorism and denies that the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to usurp power (p. 144). Later, however, she justified the threat of violence against unbelievers in order to bring them forcibly “from darkness to light,” comparing such tactics to snatching poison from the hands of a child (interview with the author, June 1981). She defined the Muslim Brotherhood as the association of all Muslims and said that Muslims who did not belong to it were deficient, although she did not go so far as to call them unbelievers. At that time she supported the Iranian Revolution, but in a later interview (13 September 1988) she said that both the Shiism of the regime and the tactics of violence against its citizens had led her to conclude that it was not really an Islamic state.

The Muslim Women’s Association was taken from alGhazali’s hands in 1965 and merged with a rival association of the same name founded by a former member of her group. The rival group was a religious voluntary association. Such associations, which number in the thousands, have played a major role in the religious life of women in Egypt in this century, offering lessons in the Qur’an and Islamic law, classes in sewing and other crafts, and pre-schools for children, among other social services.

After her release from prison, al-Ghazali resumed teaching and writing, first for the revived Muslim Brotherhood’s monthly magazine, Al-da’wah, banned by Sadat in September 1981, and then for another Islamist publication, Liwa’ al-islam. She describes herself as a “mother” to the Muslim Sisters, as well as to the young men she helped organize in the early 1960s. She was editor of a women’s and children’s section in Alda’wah, in which she encouraged women to become educated, but to be obedient to their husbands and stay at home while raising their children. She blamed many of the ills of society on the absence of mothers from the home. This conservative stance appears to be contradicted by the historical figures she used as models of womanhood in short vignettes in that same section, courageous women warriors from the early period of Islam, including members of the extremist Khariji sect, which was virtually obliterated in warfare with the larger Muslim community.

Al-Ghazali’s own example as an activist in the public sphere who divorced her first husband for interfering with her Islamic activities and threatened her second husband with the same also appears to contradict her own advice. When asked about this discrepancy, she said that her case was special, because God had given her the “blessing”-although not viewed as such by most people-of not having conceived any children (interview with the author, 13 September 1988). This gave her a great deal of freedom. Her husband was also quite wealthy, so she had servants to do her housework. She further regarded it as a boon that her husband was a polygamist, for whenever he went to see one of his other wives, “it was like a vacation” for her. She insists, nonetheless, that she has remained obedient to her husband. She believes that Islam allows women to be active in all aspects of public life, as long as it does not interfere with their first and most sacred duty: to be a wife and mother. Her second husband died while she was in prison (having divorced her under threat of imprisonment himself). Having fulfilled her duty of marriage, she feels free to devote all of her energies to the Islamic cause. Although the Islamic movement throughout the Muslim world today has attracted large numbers of young women, especially since the 1970s, Zaynab alGhazali stands out thus far as the only woman to distinguish herself as one of its major leaders.

[See also Egypt; Muslim Brotherhood, article on Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; and Women’s Movements.]


Works by Zaynab al-Ghazali

Ayydm min hayati (Days from My Life). Cairo and Beirut, 1977. AlGhazali’s prison memoirs, reprinted in at least eight editions. A detailed review of this book by Valerie Hoffman-Ladd may be found in the newsletter of the Association of Middle East Women’s Studies, no. 5 (October 1987).

Nahwa bath jadid (Toward a New Renaissance). Cairo, 1987.

Works on Zaynab al-Ghazali

Hoffman, Valerie J. “An Islamic Activist: Zaynab al-Ghazali.” In Women and the Family in the Middle East: New Voices of Change, edited by Elizabeth W. Fernea, pp. 233-254. Austin, 1985. Includes portions of the author’s June 1981 interview with al-Ghazali, and a translation of chapter 2 of Ayydm min hayati, which contains the story of how she became involved with the Muslim Brotherhood and helped organize the brotherhood’s activities in the early 1960s.

Hoffman-Ladd, Valerie J. “Polemics on the Modesty and Segregation of Women in Contemporary Egypt.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 19 (1987): 23-50. Includes al-Ghazali’s perspectives on women’s social roles.

Sullivan, Earl T. Women in Egyptian Public Life. Syracuse, N.Y., 1986. Discusses Zaynab al-Ghazali on pages 115-117.

Zuhur, Sherifa. Revealing Reveiling: Islamist Gender Ideology in Contemporary Egypt. Albany, N.Y., 1992. Chapter 5, “Construction of the Virtuous Woman,” includes Zaynab al-Ghazali’s perspectives, with portions of an interview conducted by Zuhur.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/ghazali-zaynab-al/

  • writerPosted On: June 8, 2013
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