Enter The Muslim Sisterhood

With their men in prison, women are taking the lead in Egypt’s Islamist opposition movement. GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

Wafaa Hefny was not even born when her grandfather, Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, was assassinated while waiting for a taxi on February 12, 1949.

But like many conservative Muslims, al-Banna's teachings and doctrines had a profound effect on Hefny, a lecturer in English literature at al-Azhar University.

Since the military crackdown on the brotherhood after the overthrow of President Morsi last June, and as the second, third, and fourth tier of the organization have been dismantled and imprisoned, the brotherhood has increasingly relied on women.

With no traditional leadership at the moment, it is an inevitable – but paradoxical – role in an organization as traditional as the brotherhood. "But we are very strong women," Hefny says. "We are taking up the role of men."

In this Muslim-majority country, women – even well-educated ones – usually stay at home. Now they are taking on the Egyptian security forces, leading demonstrations, organizing protests and using social media to spread awareness.

Some students at Al Azhar, the epicenter of student protests against the army, have gone so far as to boldly call General Abdel Fattah al Sisi , who toppled Morsi, a traitor. The women's awakening has trickled down from students to teenage girls.

According to Hoda abdel Moniem abdul-Aziz, a leader in the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the brotherhood, there are around 3,000 women members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"This is not recent," she said. "Since the revolution started, women participated in a significant way. Women have always been a part of the brotherhood."

After the January 25, 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, women entered a new phase of power. The sisters gathered in larger numbers at Tahrir Square and ran in parliamentary elections in the Freedom and Justice Party.

Abdul Aziz explained that the more repressive and brutal the police crackdown, the more women will respond: "Our blood is on the street, members of our organization have been killed. We went through the worst. We are not afraid of the police as long as we stick to our principles."

Critics say the women are playing a superficial role in the brotherhood and they are still not its main decision-makers.

A senior Egyptian diplomat, speaking on background, implied that the women's role was not crucial to the organization, but more of a superficial attempt to shield the real protestors. He said police are less likely to arrest women than men.

"The tactic is to put women in front of the protestors because they are less likely to be beaten or taken away," he said. It is similar, he added, to what Palestinians do during their demonstrations, when women head the protests, shielding the shabbab, or youth, who are vulnerable to being beaten or arrested by Israeli forces.

But Hefny, in Cairo, argues that the women's role in the brotherhood is both historical and imperative.

"The roles women are playing are roles they were trained to take," she said. "This is a different kind of jihad. At this time the enemy is in our home. When the enemy comes at you, you have to fight back."

She says many women were motivated to act when housewives were killed in protests and women were arrested inside their homes.

"This is the situation," she said. "Men can't tell us to stay at home when the police are coming inside our homes. Women have to come out."

The Muslim Sisterhood is not new, but it is largely unreported. Founded by Hassan al-Banna six years after the formation of the brotherhood in Ismailya, Egypt in April 1933, he wanted to call it "The Muslim Sisters Group." Initially, al-Banna wanted to give them separate leadership.

Their work was motivated by one of the pillars of the brotherhood ethos, to serve the community.

"My grandfather's legacy was simple," Hefny said. "He believed that we are here on this earth on a mission to bring justice. And justice does not spread until the word of Allah spreads."

But sectarian struggles within the sisterhood made al-Banna decide to put the women under the central command of the Muslim Brotherhood. Though their role was not as politically weighty as the men, they had a place.

"He believed in the importance of women in society," Hefny said of her grandfather. She was home in Cairo preparing one of her four sons for his exams. As she spoke, the electricity went down, one of the city's frequent power blackouts. "This is our life," she said wearily.

Describing what it was to grow up as the granddaughter of one of Islam's most important thinkers, Hefny said she remembered her mother in the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the second president of Egypt, who planned the 1952 overthrow of the monarchy and was in power from 1956 to 1970.

"My mother and my aunt were extremely conservative women, not brought up in any way to be political or outspoken," she said. Yet when her grandfather and uncle were arrested, her mother and aunt went out on the streets searching for them.

"They knocked on every embassy door," she said. "Can you imagine what it took for women to do that? But they did. They were strong."

Since August, when the Egyptian military stormed the encampments of the protestors during the pro-Morsi sit-ins, killing hundreds, most of the brotherhood leaders, among them Morsi, were arrested. Analysts describe the organization as "decimated."

It is believed that hundreds are in detention. Last month, the government came under fire for abuses from human rights and other groups after a court sentenced 21 women and teenage girls to harsh prison terms for taking part in the protests. Since then, their sentences have been slashed and the women have been released.

Hefny and other women gather weekly to strategize and to study the works of her grandfather. "It's a misconception that Islam is sexist," she said. "The very day the Muslim Brotherhood was established, there was a sisterhood."

Women in Egypt gained the right to vote after a popular but now-forgotten activist, Doria Shafiq, stormed Egypt's parliament in 1951 to demand women's suffrage. In the wake of the 2011 Tahrir Square protests, her story has been told and retold as an inspiration to young women.

Shafiq was instrumental in winning women the right to vote in 1956, but she was bitterly punished for it. In 1957, she was placed under house arrest by Nasser's regime and spent the next 18 years in forced seclusion. Her writings were banned and her name expunged from the Egyptian press and textbooks.

In 1975 she killed herself by jumping from a balcony.

But while there are plenty of strong women like Shafiq and Hefny in Egypt, women are still being sidelined and marginalized in political life. Will the budding women's movement in the brotherhood lead to more crucial roles for women in Middle Eastern politics?

"It's not really new.… Back in 1994, the brotherhood came out in support of women being in Parliament," explained Shadi Hamid, director of research from the Brookings Doha Center. "They could hold any position except head of state."

But since the crackdowns, he said, the need for women to become involved has become more necessary. He said women are particularly effective at a local level. "It's out of necessity, since the leadership of the brotherhood has been decapitated," he said. "It's kind of inevitable."

Women are still not full members of the organization, he said, "By definition; it is called the brotherhood, and they are not fully integrated into the structures of the organization. They don't have full voting rights."

But Hamid adds that women can still be powerful in Egypt. One of Morsi's senior advisors was Pakinam Sharqawy, an Iran expert and a professor at Cairo University. Always at the ousted president's side, Sharqawy was technically not in the brotherhood – but she was a strong Islamist and one of his most trusted confidantes nonetheless.

"There is no theological obstacle to having a woman that senior in the brotherhood," Hamid said. "The most important thing is sharing a worldview."

Hefny says that women – and men – in Egypt will struggle until they get true democracy. She calls the women of the brotherhood "the conscience" of the organization.

"The movement is successful," she said. "We have been prepared. And we won't stand back until our country reaches its potential and cleanses Egypt of corruption. The genie is out of the lantern. You cannot put it back in once it has been let out."