Clinton’s campaign for women’s enfranchisement is, of course, well known across the world, and even an inadequately briefed prime minister of a small nation (particularly one seeking an increase in American financial aid) would know to preempt Clinton’s exhortations by touting his own deeply felt feminism. But it’s also empirically true that Tunisia is an outlier in the Arab world on matters related to women. In Cairo, a woman’s uncovered head has become something of an unusual sight, but in Tunisia it’s the norm. Which is why the pro-hijab demonstration in Tunis gave me whiplash, and which is why I raised it with Clinton when I saw her at her State Department office a few weeks ago. She discussed the issue of hijab-wearing, and all that it signifies, in a measured way. Her main worry, she said, is legislation that would mandate the wearing of the hijab.
“What I want to see is the freedom to choose,” Clinton said. “My model would be our own country. Women are able to dress as they choose in accordance with their own personal desires, and I would like to see this available for women everywhere, so that there is no compulsion.” The Obama administration has maintained a flexible, even positive, attitude about the hijab (unlike the French government, which sees covered women, and particularly fully veiled women, as a threat to the country’s national security, and to its cultural identity). In a speech delivered in Cairo in 2009, President Obama, in the course of attempting to reset America’s relations with the Muslim world, even boasted of America’s tolerance for the hijab:
Freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union … That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.
This particular assertion in the Cairo speech was not met with joy by some Middle Eastern women’s-rights activists I spoke with at the time, women who believed that the U.S. should do nothing to celebrate the hijab—something that many Muslim women hope to shed when they come to America.
When Clinton talked to me about the hijab, however, she made clear that an attempt to pressure women in any way to cover themselves—anything on “the continuum of compulsion”—would represent a red line for her. “When people start to say that there are certain things that women should not be permitted to do, and the only way we can stop them is pass laws, like you can’t drive in Saudi Arabia, or you can’t vote … that’s a red line, and that infringes on the rights of women. Therefore I am against it. Any society in the 21st century that is looking toward modernization, and certainly [any society] claiming to be democratic, needs to protect the right to make these choices.”
This was a blunt message, delivered, quite obviously, in the direction of conservative religious forces; the secretary of state, correctly, sees the forced imposition of the hijab as a proxy for the ascendance of fundamentalist Islamism. So I asked her about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and of parties espousing ideologies similar to that of the Brotherhood. As winter turned to spring, it was becoming clear in Egypt that the Brotherhood, whose strength was downplayed by most Western commentators during the early days of the revolt in Egypt, was emerging as a power broker of surpassing importance.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a global organization with autonomous branches, some more radical than others (the terrorist group Hamas, in Gaza, is a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, for instance). There is a diversity of opinion, but those who affiliate with the Brotherhood believe, generally, in the primacy of Muslim law; in the supremacy of Islam; and in the idea that women and men should play their traditional roles in society. They also tend to believe that the West (and Israel, the country they consider a Western outpost in the Middle East) seeks, through conspiracy, to undermine their way of life. American analysts are spending a great deal of time studying the Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere (the Brotherhood’s Jordan branch, the Islamic Action Front, is that country’s most potent opposition political force), and there is some debate, in and out of administration circles, about the true views of the organization, especially in Egypt. Since the Arab revolution began, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown signs of fracturing along ideological lines, but its leaders have proved somewhat adept at playing politics, particularly that aspect of politics in which hard questions are ducked. I recently had a conversation with Mohamed Morsy, one of the Brotherhood’s senior leaders, in which he refused, to an almost comical degree, to grapple with two simple questions: Could the Brotherhood support a Christian for the Egyptian presidency? Could it support a woman? (The Brotherhood’s 2007 draft party platform, from which the organization is now trying to distance itself, makes clear that a Christian could not serve as president of Egypt.)
“Which Christian?” Morsy responded when I first asked.
I explained: not a particular Christian, but any Christian.
“There are no Christians running for president,” he said.
Yes, I know. It’s a theoretical question.
“This is a nonsense question,” he said. So I asked him if the Brotherhood had ideological objections to a woman’s running for president.
“Which woman?” he asked.
It is worth remembering, particularly at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood is attempting to soften its image, that the group’s essential platform remains unchanged. The Muslim Brotherhood’s avowed creed is “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Quran is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”
I asked Clinton whether she worried about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, particularly as it related to the future of women in the Arab Middle East. “Well, I think we don’t know enough yet to understand exactly what they’re morphing into. For me, the jury is out,” she said. “There are some Islamist elements that are coming to the surface in Egypt that I think, on just the face of it—they’re coming out of jails, coming out of the shadows—are inimical to a democracy, to the kind of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience that was the aspiration of Tahrir Square.”
This was, if anything, an even more measured answer than one expects from Clinton. But in this fluid period, when there is a reasonable chance—not a large one, but still a reasonable one—that the Muslim Brotherhood might splinter, or perhaps even find itself in vigorous competition with more-secular-minded parties, Clinton and Obama recognize that the Brotherhood could turn harsh American criticism into a campaign advantage, particularly among more rural, poorly educated, and traditionalist voters.