“Islam has provided everything for both men and women. It gave women everything —freedom, economic rights, political rights, social rights, public and private rights. Islam gave women rights in the family granted by no other society. Women may talk of liberation in Christian society, Jewish society, or pagan society, but in Islamic society it is a grave error to speak of the liberation of women. The Muslim woman must study Islam so she will know that it is Islam that has given her all her rights.”
Influences and Historical Context
Zaynab al-Ghazali’s father, a local religious leader, encouraged her to be both a strong woman and integrate religion in every aspect of her life. Inspired by her father, her piety, and the milieu of Egyptian nationalism, al-Ghazali began her career as an Islamic feminist at the age of 16 by joining the Egyptian Feminist Union followed by her establishment of the Muslim Women’s association at the age of 18.
al-Ghazali’s activism emerged within the context of Egyptian women’s expanding agency and was influenced by three decades of the Egyptian nationalist movement. In response to the post-colonialism and the forming of Egyptian national identity, women expanded and asserted their social agency, especially in relation to women’s involvement in charitable associations. These forms of social activism marked women’s entry into public and political life. The emergence of a variety of women’s associations can generally be divided into two fields: secular feminism and Islamic feminism.
Muslim Women’s Association
Secular groups, such as the Egyptian Feminist Union, focused their discourse on gender issues and equal rights. In contrast, al-Ghazali asserted that Islam had provided women all the rights that secular feminists were concern with. She charged that the focus on the “woman question” was a reflection of a colonized mentality and Western values. In forming the Muslim Women’s Association, al-Ghazali oriented her activism within traditional Islamic contexts and broadened the goals of her movement to improve society from within. The Association’s concern with providing charitable services and educating women, especially in the field of Qur’anic exegesis, is meant to empower women to be active within the home as well as strengthen the community at large. In keeping with Islamic tradition, al-Ghazali insists that women should play an active role in the public, intellectual and political spheres, as long as such activities do not interfere with a women’s responsibilities to her immediate family. Although al-Ghazali’s discourse reflects similar language as the liberal feminists, the great success of her movement owes to her affirmation of Muslim women’s equality within Islamic tradition.
Cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood
In addition to her involvement as a writer and editor for the al-Da’wah mazagine, al-Ghazali spoke at Ibn Tulun Mosque weekly and established a following of thousands of Egyptian women. As she attained prominence as a female figure in the Islamic opposition to the government, al-Ghazali and the Muslim Women’s Association became affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the two organizations worked closely together, al-Ghazali’s declined Qutb’s invitation to merge the two groups, effectively maintaining autonomy for her organization. al-Ghazali did swear her loyalty to Qutb, but the separation of the organizations later proved beneficial in temporarily shielding the Muslim Women’s Association during the government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
After the dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1964, al-Ghazali continued her opposition to the Egyptian government. In 1965, she was arrested and imprisoned on charges of conspiring to assassinate Sadat. During the first year, she was held at al-Qanatir, a men’s prison, along with other leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Her memoir, Return of the Pharaoh, recounts the brutal torture inflicted upon her, as well as her mystical experiences that sustained her faith during her imprisonment. Return of the Pharaoh reinforces al-Ghazali’s stature as equivalent, if not stronger, than her male counterparts, as well as an ideal model of female piety and activism.
Academic criticism surrounds al-Ghazali’s paradoxical discourse in reference to the role of women. Although al-Ghazali asserted that women’s role within Islam was rooted within the family structure and responsibilities of the home, al-Ghazali’s activism and involvement in the public sphere challenged the very gender roles she urged other women to abide. Despite these apparent contradictions, al-Ghazali’s success lies in her framing of women’s role as related to the moral and physical responsibilities to the family instead of equal rights. Given her personal situation, as a child-less wife who is first and foremost devoted to God and fulfillment of da’wa, al-Ghazali is not burdened with the same responsibilities of other women, therefore allowing for her active participation in public life. In this way, al-Ghazali shifted her moral responsibility towards the community at large, effectively becoming the mother of the Egyptian Islamist movement.
Legacy and Contemporary Islamic Feminism
al-Ghazali’s influence pervades Islamic feminist discourse and institutional structures. In transforming women’s family obligations to encompass the entire community and grounding women’s equality within the Islamic tradition, al-Ghazali dramatically increased women’s social agency within Egypt. Using Muslim charitable organizations as a public structure within which women could establish their place in the heart of Islamic society, al-Ghazali and the Muslim Women’s Association acted as models within which women affirmed their equality and expanded their influence. As a pioneer of Islamic Feminism, al-Ghazali’s “blend of conservatism, nationalism, feminism and spirituality” continue as the guiding principles of Islamic women today.
Return of the Pharoah relates how, falsely accused of conspiring to kill Jamal ‘Abd an-Nasr, the author was arrested and imprisoned. While awaiting trial she was subjected to the most terrible and inhumane torture. This book describes in a captivating manner the ordeal which this Muslim activist went through in the notorious Egyptian prisons. Instead of dampening her enthusiasm for Islaam and the Islamic movement, the afflictions and savageries in Nasir’s prisons increased her commitment and dedication to the cause of Islaam. This autobiographical work can be considered a historic document in that its author was an active witness to one of the most volatile periods of Egypt’s contemporary history.
The full PDF of this book can be accessed and downloaded from here (please be patient as the book loads).
Some excerpts from “Return of The Pharaoh” (“Ayyaam min Hayatee”):
The condition that she made to her husband prior to their marital bond is as follows:
“However, I believe one day I will take this step that I wish and dream of. If that day comes, and because of it, a clash is apparent between your personal interests and economic activities on the one hand, and my Islamic work on the other, and that I find my married life is standing in the way of Da’wah and the establishment of an Islamic state, then, each of us should go our own way.”
“I cannot ask you today to share with me this struggle, but it is my right on you not to stop me from jihad in the way of Allah. Moreover, you should not ask me about my activities with other Mujahideen, and let trust be full between us. A full trust between a man and a woman, a woman who, at the age of 18, gave her full life to Allah and Da’wah. In the event of any clash between the marriage contract’s interest and that of Da’wah, our marriage will end, but Da’wah will always remain rooted in me.”
“I accept that ordering me to listen to you is amongst your rights, but Allah is greater than ourselves. Besides, we are living in a dangerous phase of Da’wah.”
The response of her husband was: “Forgive me. Carry on your work with Allah’s blessing. If only I could live to see the establishment of an Islamic state and the Ikhwan’s goal achieved! If only I was still in my youth to work with you!”
Description of the persecution on her in prison:
“The next moment the door was locked and a bright light switched on. Now their purpose was revealed; the room was full of dogs! I could not count how many!
Scared, I closed my eyes and put my hands to my chest. Within second the snarling dogs were all over me and I could feel their teeth tearing into every part of my body. Clenching my hands tight into my armpits, I began to recount the Names of Allah, beginning with ‘O Allah! O Allah!’…. I expected that my clothes would be thoroughly stained with blood, for I was sure the dogs had bitten every part of my body. But, incredulously, there was not a single bloodstain on my clothes, as if the dogs had been in my imagination only.”
“I do not know how but I fell asleep while invoking Allah, and it was then that I experienced the first of four visions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) that I was to see during my stay in prison. There in front of me, praise be to Allah, was a vast desert and camels with hawdahs as if made of light. On each hawdah were four men, all with luminous faces. I found myself behind this huge train of camels in that vast, endless desert, and standing behind a great, reverent man. This man was holding a halter, which passed through the neck of each camel. I wondered silently: ‘Could this man be the Prophet (peace be upon him)?'”
“Silence has no safeguard with the Prophet, who replied: ‘Zaynab! You are following in the footsteps of Muhammad, Allah’s Servant and Messenger.'”`
“I remained in my cell for six consecutive days: from Friday 20th August to Thursday 26th August 1965. My cell door, during these six days was never opened. I was given neither food, drink, allowed to go to the toilet nor any contact with the outside world, except my warder who, now and then, peeped through the small hole in my cell door. You can imagine, dear reader, how a person can live in such circumstances.”
“Write down the names of all your acquaintances on the face of this earth. If you don’t, we will shoot you where you stand. Write down the names of all your Ikhwan acquaintances and everything about your relationship with them.
They then left the cell, closing the door behind them. I wrote: ‘I have many friends, in many countries, who have known me through Islamic da’wah. Our movements on this earth are for Allah, and He leads those who choose His path. This path is the same as that which the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his Companions followed before us. Our aim is to spread Allah’s message and to call for the implementation of His rule. I call you, in the Name of Allah, to leave your Jahiliyyah, renew your Islam, pronounce the Shahadah and submit and repent to Allah from this darkness that has swathed your hearts, and which prevents you from doing any good deed. If you do so, perhaps Allah will take you out of this abyss of Jahiliyyah and bring you to the light of Islam.”
“Then, at the Adhan of Fajr, I prayed, raising my hands and invoking Allah: “O Allah! If You are not angry with me I don’t care, but Your grace is more befitting to me. I seek refuge in the light of Your Face, That which has enlightened darkness and on Whom the matters of this life and the Hereafter have settled, that Your Curse does not befall me. To You is our obedience until You are pleased and there is no might or strength except with You.”
“His whips found every part of my body, the cruelest thing that Jahiliyyah had known both in terms of cruelty and bestiality. As the torture and pain intensified, I could not suppress my screams any longer; I raised my voice to Allah. I repeated His great Name: ‘O Allah! O Allah!’ Whilst the whips tore into my body, my heart found contentment and affinity with Allah. I lost consciousness but they tried to arouse me to take more punishment. Blood poured from my feet, and unable to pull myself up, I tried to lean on the wall. Safwat persisted with his whip. I begged to be allowed to sit on the floor but Shams Badran shouted: “No! No! Where is your God now? Call Him to save you from my hands! Answer me, where is your God?”