Other prominent women in the Brotherhood have raised controversy recently with statements encouraging female genital mutilation, known as "circumcision" in Egypt, where it remains widespread despite attempts under Mubarak's regime to curtail it. Some Egyptian religious conservatives say it is required by Islam, though the majority of the Muslim world does not practice it.
Asked about the practice, al-Saqari avoided a direct response but said it and the issue of child marriage could not be dealt with through legislation.
"We leave it to the doctor to decide whether this girl needs FGM or not. I am not the one to decide, laws won't work," she said. "The way here is not through laws but through awareness," she said, concerning laws setting a minimum age for marriage. Egyptian law currently sets a minimum age of 18, but some ultraconservatives have argued that Islam allows girls to marry as young as puberty and that the law must allow it.
Bahy Eddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, said al-Saqari's candidacy "is totally contradictory to the genuine beliefs of the Muslim Brotherhood on the role of women ... They don't believe that women and men are equal and that they should be treated on equal footing--in the constitution, in any laws."
"The Muslim Brotherhood is very concerned with its image with the West, but not with the Egyptian people," he said. "They are doing their best to market themselves to the West and this is their most recent means of doing so."
Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan dismissed the criticism, saying her candidacy shows the group promotes women.
"They say that the Muslim Brotherhood does not encourage women to participate in politics. And when women do participate in our party, (the activists) criticize us," he said. "We are at a loss, what should we do? We cannot please them."
Hilmi el-Gazzar, a senior Brotherhood member, said al-Saqari faces a tough race, pointing to her inexperience in comparison to el-Katatni and el-Erian, who have served as head of parliament and interim head of the party, respectively. But her "candidacy is encouraging because it indicates the direction of our party. We are ready to have her as a candidate, and if she wins the elections, we will be ready for her to be our chair."
But "if she does not succeed in this race she will profit from the experience in the near future," he said. He said he encourages her to become a member of the party's executive office.
The new chairman will be elected by the Freedom and Justice Party's 1,000-member General Assembly. Party spokesman were unsure how many women are on the assembly, but said they are fewer than 100.
AP writer Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.
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