CAIRO – They tirelessly hold rallies, whether at night or under cold rain, chanting for the return of Egypt's ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. They clash with police, hurling back fuming tear gas canisters and getting dragged by their veils and thrown behind bars. At protests in universities, they get into fistfights with rival female students.
Women supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have stepped into the front line of Islamist protests, once of the few branches of the organization not crushed by a heavy crackdown since Morsi's removal in a July 3 coup.
Former group members say it's an intentional survival tactic by the Brotherhood, aiming to keep its street pressure alive and betting that security forces are less likely to strike heavily against women — and that if they do, it will win public sympathy for the Islamists' cause.
It's a major change in role for the Muslim Sisterhood, as the women's branch is known. Like the Brotherhood's male cadres, its women are highly disciplined and undergo years of indoctrination instilling principles of obedience — often from childhood — but in the women's case, they have largely been trained to play a mostly backseat, family-centered part.
In daily protests the past months, they have proven determined and ferocious.
"We are protecting our religion. I came out for the sake of Islam," said a slim veiled 13-year-old Souhidah Abdel-Rahman, who was arrested along with her mother during a pro-Morsi protest in October in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. Abdel-Rahman was immediately released because of her age, but her mother remained in detention.
"They want to break our back but we are not going to back off," she said, speaking to The Associated Press as she visited her mother earlier this month at a prison in the Nile Delta city of Damanhour.
A male Brotherhood youth leader from the southern city of Assiut said he and many members are "hibernating" in the face of the crackdown. But he said the group is betting that the public, which largely backed Morsi's ouster, will eventually turn against the military and interim government under pressing economic conditions. He spoke of the "butterfly" tactic of swift, snap demonstrations organized by the group's surviving lower cadres.
Women and students, he said, play an important role. "The women are hardly harmed because no one knows them. Security authorities don't have files for them," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns. Also, women help heal the relationship between the Brotherhood and the public, he added, acknowledging that "the group is hated in the street now."
The attempt to win public sympathies appears to be having mixed success.
One win for the group came when 21 women arrested in the October Alexandria protest, including seven juveniles, received heavy sentences of up to 11 years in prison for protesting. The harshness of the sentences — along with images of the handcuffed women and girls in their white robes in the courtroom's defendants cage — shocked even some opponents of Islamists. The sentences were reduced to one-year suspended prison terms on appeal and the women have been released.
Tarek el-Beshbeshi, a former senior Brotherhood member who defected this year from the group, said the Brotherhood is waging a "war of attrition" with constant protests to wear down state resources. Along with university students, women "are making the biggest impact because they are the most zealous and enjoy a societal immunity from prosecution to some extent."
Still, another ex-Brotherhood member, Ahmed Ban, noted that the heavy sentences against the women were a message from authorities "that there are no red lines in the confrontation. If you wave the women card in my face, I will deal with them as if they are men."
At the same time, the Brotherhood women have at times faced a public backlash during the protests.
Sisters at the Islamic Al-Azhar University, including the "Al-Azhar Girls Ultras," have been among the most aggressive. In past weeks, their protests at the women's dormitories in the university's Cairo campus have turned into clashes, with police blasting women with water cannons as girls throw volleys of stones from the dorm balconies. When police fired tear gas, women picked up the smoking canisters and hurled them back.
Speaking to an AP reporter on a recent visit to the campus, one pro-Brotherhood woman, Walaa, recalled with pride how their "steadfastness astonished the world." The 20-year-old engineering student and several other Brotherhood backers with her spoke on condition they be identified only by their first names for fear of arrest.
As they spoke, they were interrupted by other female students angry over the protests. Minna Mohammed, a 20-year-old student with her face covered by a conservative veil, snapped that their protests forced the entire university to stop classes.
"I don't want to skip my classes because you want to hold protests," she said angrily. "They are cutting the roads, interrupting classes, irritating police. Police warned them several times before firing tear gas but they don't listen."
Another student, Hanan Mohammed, showed bruises she said were from pro-Brotherhood women who beat her when she flashed a V-for-victory sign from her balcony in support of police cracking down on the protesters. She said the women threw broken glass in the face of her roommate, leaving her bleeding.
"Are you from the traitors' room? Room 106?" a pro-Brotherhood woman, Esraa, shouted at her as she showed the bruises.
Gen. Hani Abdel-Latif, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, said the leading role of Brotherhood women and students show the group is "using its last reserves."
For decades, the Sisterhood played a largely subordinate role in the male-dominated organization. They held weekly meetings to report on potential new recruits and ran charities, schools and kindergartens in the group's crucial grassroots network, a source of funding and recruits. During elections, they go house-to-house, knocking doors of housewives garnering votes that helped the group score major victories in post-Mubarak elections.
As part of their indoctrination, Sisters learn by heart the diaries of Zeinab el-Ghazali, an iconic female Brotherhood member who was imprisoned in 1960s and sentenced to death, though the sentence was commuted to life in prison. In the Sisterhood, she is elevated to near sainthood because of her descriptions of abuses in prison. In her diaries, she says jailers put hungry dogs in her cell to attack her but she survived without shedding a drop of blood and that when they let in mice, the rodents fled from her.
But Sisterhood members are not included in the decision-making hierarchy or leadership bodies. While male members have rankings defining their missions, women only hold the titles of "lover" — as in, of God — or "Sister." The founder of the 83-year-old Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, underlined that women are for "housekeeping and children" and that extra education is "unnecessary."
Sisters are not permitted to marry non-Brotherhood members. A former sister, 42-year-old Azza Afifi, said when her Brother husband quit the group, she was told by Brotherhood officials to either divorce him or quit with him. She chose the latter.
"I was very obedient, blindly following them. Unlike my husband, I never argued or expressed opposition," she said. "They exploit the young women and men. They knew how to press the right buttons ... Now I see the women are used."