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The Muslim Sisters, still in the shadow of the Brothers

20 December 2021 Expertises   3958  

Ian Hamel

Founded in 1933 by Hassan Al-Banna in Egypt, the female branch of the Brotherhood remains marginalised. It still does not have access to the organisation’s hierarchy. Reference works on the Muslim Brotherhood, such as The Society of the Muslim Brothers by the American Richard Mitchell, The Muslim Brotherhood from its origins to the present day, by the Egyptian Amr Elshobaki, A modern history of the Ismalic World, by the German Reinhard Schulze. Or Le Projet, by Alexandre Del Val and Emmanuel Razavi, devote only a few lines to the Muslim Sisters. Yet they play a significant role in the morale of the troops.

Exceptions are always needed to confirm the rules. This is the case of Mohamed and Nadia Karmous. A couple living in the canton of Neuchâtel, a short distance from the French border. As much as the voluble Nadia Karmous works in the light, Mohamed Karmous, of a rare discretion, almost shy, prefers the shadow. In the book Qatar Papers, the journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot devote a chapter to them, entitled “Switzerland, the Muslim Brotherhood’s safe”. Thanks to her generous Qatari donors, she was able to finance a Museum of Islamic Civilisations (MUCIVI) in La Chaux-de-Fonds, in the canton of Neuchâtel, in 2016, which cost four million Swiss francs (3.8 million euros). Still, perhaps Nadia Karmous should have been concerned about the attendance rate of such an establishment in the Jura mountains. Imagine the popularity of this type of museum in Vesoul or Tarascon…

Since then, the (bad) publicity caused by the release of the Qatar Papers has dissuaded the Qataris from putting their hands in their pockets again, this time for an ambitious real estate project developed by the Karmous family, estimated at 22 million Swiss francs. Nadia Karmous, of Algerian origin, also distinguished herself by actively defending the innocence of Tariq Ramadan, prosecuted for five rapes in France and one in Switzerland. The president of the cultural association of Muslim women in Switzerland caused an uproar when she described the preacher’s accusers as “frustrated”. Her husband, of Tunisian origin, on the other hand, dissociated himself from Tariq Ramadan, following the example of the French Muslim Brotherhood. Less visible than Nadia Karmous, Mohamed Karmous is nonetheless very active. Not only in La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle (in the canton of Neuchâtel), but also in Fribourg, Geneva, Biel and Lugano. He is the founder of the League of Muslims of Switzerland (LMS), which is attached to the Federation of European Islamic Organisations (FOIE) in Brussels.

Persecuted Muslim Sisters

Mohamed Karmous is also a bag carrier, notably for the European Institute of Human Sciences (IESH) in Saint-Léger-du-Fougeret, of which he was the treasurer. According to a note from the General Intelligence Service, he was checked on 30 April 2007 by customs at the French-Swiss border with 50,000 undeclared euros.

But if Mohamed Karmous does not hesitate to put his wife forward, it is still not the Brotherhood’s habit. Hassan al-Banna first created a school for the “mothers of believers” in Ismailia, the city where he founded the Muslim Brotherhood. The first section of the Muslim Sisters was created in 1933 with the aim of training “good Muslim women who practise their religion and intervene in the social field”. This is in line with what Hassan al-Banna advocates: to achieve power, one must start with individuals, then with families, and finally with the whole society. Of course, women must play a role, but under the control of men.

Founder of the Association of Muslim Sisters in Cairo, Zaynab Al Ghazali became close to the Brotherhood in 1937. She finally joined in 1948, when the Brotherhood was banned by the Egyptian authorities. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, some sisters were imprisoned and even tortured. Zaynab Al Ghazali recounts this in her book Days from my Life (translated into French in 1996). During the persecutions, under the dictatorship of Nasser from 1954 to 1970, the Sisters, in semi-clandestinity, were very active in helping the families of imprisoned members.

But despite their sacrifices, the Sisters remain marginalised within the Brotherhood. For Sara Tonsy, a researcher associated with the Institute for Research and Studies on the Arab and Muslim Worlds (IREMAM) and author of Les Sœurs musulmanes: entre révolution et affirmation du statu quo, the priority of women “remains to support the men in their missions and to help train the future generations of the Brotherhood (…) The responsibilities of the Sisters have therefore been limited since the time of Hassan al-Banna, centred on maternity and support for the men”.

Four Sisters elected in 2011

For the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the role of women remains so marginal that at no time does he talk about his own wife and what she might have said or done, except to raise their children. Wafa, Hassan al-Banna’s eldest daughter, married to Said Ramadan (Tariq and Hani Ramadan’s father, who disappeared in 1995), has been living in Geneva for more than 60 years. She has never spoken out and few people have even seen her… In Egypt, on the other hand, the situation is changing somewhat. At the beginning of the 2000s, Jihane Halafawin, a Muslim Sister, ran for the legislative elections. She was defeated, but it was a first. In 2011, four sisters enter the Parliament. The women can organise a congress. And the Brotherhood recognises (finally) their role in the “revolution”.

However, since the deposition of Mohamed Morsi and the repression that has fallen on the Muslim Brotherhood, everything has been suspended in Egypt. In other countries, however, such as Turkey, the sisters are continuing their missionary work. “The Sisters have set up schools and support groups,” says Sara Tonsy. However, they still do not reach the hierarchy of the organisation.

But is this really surprising? The Brothers are above all conservatives. In their minds, it is inconceivable to give any political or organisational authority to women. For them, the role of the Sisters must be limited to mobilising the whole family in favour of the Brotherhood.