Tunisia and Syria: The Muslim Brotherhood and the veil

05 April 2011

"The hijab is not a duty for Muslim women." This is a quote by Gamal al-Banna, one of the most famous Egyptian theologians, author of many books about Islam and, last but not least, the brother of Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. In a recent documentary, shot last November by the Norwegian "Channel 2", Gamal al-Banna pointed out that the Koran only dictates that women must cover their "beautiful parts" with mantles; that is to say their breasts.

Whilst speaking, he showed reporters a picture of his sister during the 1960s, who was not wearing any veil. It follows that neither the veil (hijab) nor the full veil (niqab or burqa) belongs to the Islamic religious tradition. For this reason we could agree with the Algerian anthropologist Khalida Messaoudi who wrote that the veil can have many different meanings. Today there is no longer doubt that the veil constitutes a symbol of political Islam, which is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Analysing the case studies of post-Ben Ali's Tunisia and Assad's Syria, which is still in turmoil, can shed some light on this.

In post-revolutionary Tunisia, Rached al-Ghannouchi, leader of the El Nahda movement stated upon his return from exile that he would not demand any changes to the Code of Personal Status which has granted Tunisian women a unique place in the Arab world since 1956. The Code had banned polygamy, created a judicial procedure for divorce and required marriage to be performed only in the presence of mutual consent by both parties. Ghannouchi subsequently asked the Minister of Education to lift the ban on wearing the hijab in schools. This attitude is typical of the Muslim Brotherhood's kind of taqiyya dissimulation, which characterises their action particularly in democratic societies. Whilst acting as if they accept democracy and not wanting to erase the past for fear of appearing too radical, they demand a small amount of "democratic" change, in this case allowing the veil in schools. They know perfectly well that allowing the veil in schools could spread the notion among a new generation of Muslim girls that a good Muslim should wear the veil. As a matter of fact the hijab is not yet allowed in Tunisian schools, but on 2nd April, the Interior Ministry announced that the state "will soon authorise the delivery of national identity cards to women who wear the veil" modifying a decree issued in 1993.

It is no surprise that the reason given is that "this measure is in line with reforms undertaken in order to promote the values and principles of the Tunisian revolution (in January) and to guarantee the effective respect of public and civil liberties." This decision is totally in line with a previous decision, taken on 12th February, granting Tunisian men the right to have beards on their identity cards. And the beard is the outward symbol for men belonging to the Brotherhood.


While in Tunisia most of the women who participated in the Jasmine Revolution were bare-headed, in Syria manifestations against Assad's dictatorship include a large number of veiled women. Last July Assad banned the niqab. Hundreds of primary school teachers who were wearing the niqab at government-run schools were transferred in June to administrative jobs in a move that angered many conservative Muslims. On Wednesday, Ali Saad, the education minister in Syria's temporary government, said that teachers could now return to their jobs. This decision, along with the decision to close down "Casino Damascus", is clearly a way to appease the Muslim Brotherhood. But if Bashar Assad had studied the history of modern Arab world, in general, as well as Anwar Sadat's biography, he would not have allowed this, as this move will not satisfy his opponents.

 Women's Roles

Both Tunisia and Syria show that for the Muslim Brotherhood, women, in general, and the veil in particular, are a means of conquering society since women are the mothers of new generations. In their opinion, women have to be protected, but hold rights on the condition that they serve the cause. In other words, serving the cause of attaining power. One should not forget the article on women in the Charter of Hamas, that is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood: "Muslim women have a no lesser role than men in the war of liberation; they create men and play a great role in guiding and educating the [new] generation. The women in the house and family of Jihad fighters, whether they are mothers or sisters, carry out the most important duty of caring for the home and raising the children according to the moral concepts and values derived from Islam; and of educating their sons to observe the religious injunctions in preparation for the duty of Jihad awaiting them. Therefore, we must pay attention to the schools and curriculi upon which Muslim girls are educated, so as to make them righteous mothers, who are conscious of their duties in the war of liberation."

Tunisia and other Arab countries moving towards democracy should remember this article and, at the same time, should bear in mind that the Muslim Brotherhood, having been active for many years in Europe, knows very well how to deal with democracy. For them, democracy, whilst seen as Satanic, is a means for attaining power and establishing an Islamic state. And in all this, women play a crucial role.