Zaynab al-Ghazali was born in the Egyptian Delta to a father who was both a cotton merchant and an independent religious teacher. Zaynab was educated in religious schools and her father encouraged her to become an Islamic leader, following in the footsteps of Nusaybah bint Ka’ab al-Maziniyah, a woman who bravely fought alongside Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) at the Battle of Uhud. Aged only eighteen years old, Zaynab founded the Jamaa’at al-Sayyidaat al-Muslimaat (Muslim Women’s Association), a charitable organisation which campaigned for better scriptural education of women and assisted the poor and underprivileged.
Zaynab was a great friend of the school teacher Hasan Al-Banna and her Muslim Women’s Association worked in close cooperation with the Society of Muslim Brothers, created by Hasan al-Banna in 1928 to promote the Islamic ethos of altruism and civic duty. When the Society was dissolved in 1948, Zaynab formally joined its successor, the Muslim Brotherhood. This organisation soon grew into a prominent political force, involved in the Egyptian nationalist movement and supporting the cause of the poor and disenfranchised. Zaynab also held weekly lectures to women at the Ibn Tulum Mosque, which in the holy months of the year could draw a crowd of five thousand. In addition to educating women, Zaynab’s Muslim Women’s Association was untiring in its assistance for poor families and it maintained an orphanage and mediated in family disputes.
Struggling for a Voice
The popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood was interpreted by the pro-British ruling elite as a threat to their power and so the Brotherhood soon faced retaliation by the government. Despite Hasan al-Banna’s assassination in 1949 and the imprisonment and execution of many other members of the Brotherhood, Zaynab continued to support the society, participating in secret Islamic study groups despite the great personal risk. She also started programs to help the orphans and widows of the dead and imprisoned Brotherhood members and those Brothers who had been released or were fugitives. In the early 1960s, Zaynab was instrumental in regrouping the Muslim Brotherhood and she maintained secret contact with influential member Sayyid Qutb in prison.
The renewed activity by the Muslim Brotherhood, aided by Zaynab, resulted in a crackdown in 1965 by the Egyptian government of Jamal ‘Abd al-Nasir, who believed the Brotherhood were plotting to overthrow him. Not only were Brothers targeted but Sisters too. The Muslim Women’s Association was dissolved and Zaynab was imprisoned. At her trial in 1966 Zaynab was sentenced to a twenty-five year imprisonment with hard labour. But Zaynab did not give up, despite the cruel torture she received, which she documented in her book Ayyam min Hayyati.
A Distinguished Author
After six long years in prison, Zaynab was released in 1971 under Anwar Sadat’s presidency. Prison had not cowed Zaynab’s strong spirit and she continued to be an active speaker and teacher of Islam. Zaynab also became a prolific author, writing first for the renewed Muslim Brotherhood’s magazine Al-Dawah and then going on to frequently contribute to other Islamic journals and magazines on Islamic and women’s issues. The aforementioned Ayyam min Hayyati has cemented Zaynab’s reputation as a powerful author and a committed follower of Islam.
Thoughts on Women
Zaynab sadly passed away in 2005 but she is still remembered as a passionate activist and educator of women. She worked tirelessly to teach women about their rights and she strongly believed that Islam permits women to be active members of public life, able to have jobs, openly express their opinions and be highly visible in politics and civil society. For this, and for her unwavering commitment to Islam, Zaynab will forever be known as a strong and courageous Muslim woman.