CAIRO — Azza al-Garf wants to film our interview. I don't want her to. The parliamentarian from Egypt's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, says it's party policy. I tell her I've never had another FJP politician tape an interview, and I offer to send her the audio recording I'm about to start. She refuses. Garf is obviously hesitant and wary. Egyptian liberals and the foreign press have labeled her the Michele Bachmann of Cairo for her conservative views on women. We are already off to a bad start.
As one of only nine women elected to Egypt's lower house of parliament (out of 498 elected deputies) in the country's first free elections in more than half a century, you'd think Garf would be at the vanguard for promoting women's rights. Instead, she has made a splash by talking about tightening Egypt's already stringent divorce laws, rolling back the ban on female genital mutilation, and reportedly denying that sexual harassment exists in Egypt. So it appears she's learned a thing or two about media snafus.
It's actually pretty awkward. How does one woman say to another: "Hey, are you super excited to curb women's rights?" And so we sit across from each other on black leather couches in the FJP office in a well-to-do satellite city of Cairo called Sixth of October, Garf's constituency, debating whether a dumpy man in a dumpy suit can film us. After a while it turns out it's not FJP policy -- it's Garf's policy, and I suspect it's a new one.
Garf has a lot to prove, so perhaps she's right to be nervous. Many Egyptians don't believe women make effective politicians. The weight of generations of sexual oppression rest on her shoulders -- and she knows it. I finally relent after negotiating an agreement that they will film only Garf, and the camera starts rolling. Garf names the stakes without being prompted. "The success of the women this time paves the way for other women in future parliaments," she tells me.
Garf looks almost regal -- a cascading white headscarf frames her smooth face -- and she holds eye contact while confidently reciting the party line. She could be one of the Brotherhood's best assets at a time when all of its actions are under a microscope.
But after my hour with her, I have more questions than answers. From the outside, Garf appears to be a curious contradiction: a female role model who wants to make life more difficult for other women. Sure, she's not saying anything that the Muslim Brotherhood hasn't said for ages, but the ideas seem to be an uncomfortable fit for Garf, a working mother who took a risk, ran for office, and won. But more than anything, it's just strange to hear the patriarchal party line coming from a woman's mouth.
For Garf, though, there's no contradiction at all. For her, and the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole, adhering to a strict interpretation of Islam is the right thing for everyone. Period. What she wants for women, at first glance, doesn't seem that different from what other Egyptian feminists have called for. When I ask her what she hopes for women in Egypt, Garf is quick to respond: "I wish she would be more insistent to take part in the political life -- to make sure her vote is not rigged and her demands are not ignored. She should be developed in all aspects: health, economic, and education" -- but then comes the kicker -- "and most importantly taking care of her family. Our families are the future of our country."