After the Arab Spring

12.20.135:45 AM ET

Egypt Targets Islamist Women

Twenty-one women connected with the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested and given harsh sentences for a peaceful protest. Why they refuse to be silenced.

Gehad Mowafi, a soft-spoken 20-year-old university student, is eager to get out in Egypt’s streets and protest again.

“I want to raise my voice as loud as possible and chant against oppression,” she says, as she sits in her family’s apartment in a poor neighborhood of the coastal city of Alexandria.

But Mowafi knows she must hold herself back for now from agitating against Egypt’s military rulers—particularly after the court ruling that came down on November 27, in which she and 20 other Muslim Brotherhood women were sentenced to 11 years in jail for taking part in a peaceful protest in late October.

After much domestic and international outrage over the heavy sentences, the court freed the women and reduced their sentences on December 7: the 14 adults saw their terms reduced to a one-year suspended sentence, while the seven minors—some of them as young as 15 years old—were put on three months’ probation. Still, the women know if they are caught protesting again within that period, they will serve the original jail term plus any additional charges.

The women and their families plan to appeal the final verdict and insist they did nothing wrong by protesting at Alexandria’s seafront on October 31, as part of the Brotherhood-affiliated 7am movement.

Their arrest and trial—which is rare in Egypt, where women are generally spared being put on trial—drew criticism from human-rights groups as well as senior political figures known to oppose the Islamist movement. Hamdeen Sabahi, a pro-military politician who stood in the 2012 presidential elections and is gearing up for another bid in 2014, even called for a presidential pardon. It was a rare point of unity at a time when Egypt is ever more politically polarized.

“There were clearly voices within the system saying this has gone too far,” says Heba Morayef, Cairo director of Human Rights Watch, a New York based advocacy group. “Their arrest and referral to trial so quickly was to send a specific message: no more protests.”

Protests have been a near-daily occurrence by the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies since the July 3 ouster of the former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, who was deposed by the military after a popular wave of protests calling for his removal.

Since then, Egypt’s security forces have launched a harsh crackdown on opponents and Morsi supporters, killing and arresting thousands of Islamists. Up to 1,000 people were killed in just one day in Cairo when security forces forcibly dispersed a Muslim Brotherhood sit-in August. It was Egypt’s bloodiest day since the 2011 revolution.

The words “Rabaa” are scrawled in red near Yomna Abu Eissa’s home in Alexandria. The word refers to the area in Cairo where most of the deaths occurred in August.

At 15, Eissa was the youngest of the detainees. “Of course, I’m going to continue protesting,” she says. “It’s a shame all the people who are being killed, all the arrests that are happening, and now I have been oppressed.”

She keeps a sticker of the four-fingered yellow and black hand gesture that denotes Rabaa, which means fourth in Arabic, by her bedside.

She and the other 15-year-old detainees, who were kept in a separate prison to the adults, said their hardest experience in detention was witnessing attempted suicides by other young inmates. “There were six attempted suicides in just one day,” says another detainee, Mowada Mostafa. “I was shocked.”

Lobna Yousef, Mowada’s mother, says she supports her daughter’s decision to take part in protests. “She’s determined that this is her right, and that she didn’t do anything wrong. And, I’m comforted by the fact that she really didn’t do anything wrong.”

Human-rights groups criticized the trial for not providing any direct evidence linking the women and girls to alleged acts of thuggery and rioting, and for relying heavily on the accounts of police and national security officials.

Their harsh sentence has been compared to softer sentences given to convicted killers. In March, a policeman charged with shooting at protesters, and deliberately aiming at their eyes, during November 2011 protests was given three years in prison. And two policemen charged in Alexandria’s most famous criminal case—that of the activist Khaled Saeed, who was beaten to death—were given seven years in jail. Saeed’s death became a rallying cry to Egypt’s 2011 revolution.

“The judiciary was under the influence of the state,” says Ayman Dabi, a lawyer whose niece Khadija Mohamed, 16, was one of the detainees. “They wanted to discourage women from going out in protests and to minimize the number of people in the street … But, it has worked the other way, it has given a bad picture to the security forces, and judiciary,” he says.

The young women said they spent their time in jail reading the Koran, Islam’s holy book, praying, and getting to know the other inmates. “For me, I learned patience in prison,” Mowada says. “You definitely need that in life.”