In a speech at the 2011 U.S.-Islamic World Forum on April 11, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton decried the exclusion of women from key transitional decision-making roles in the Arab renaissance. Clinton emphasized political and socioeconomic participation, but, perhaps in an effort to mitigate allegations of anti-Islam bias, did not mention the equally important issue of women’s religious leadership. However, Muslim women’s increased participation in Islamic scholarship and leadership is essential if true gender justice is to be achieved in the Middle East and across the world.
When military officers governing Egypt convened a panel of jurists from diverse ideological backgrounds to revise the country’s constitution last month, many celebrated it as the dawning of a new era in democracy in Egypt. What many women saw, however, was a familiar, disheartening scene: a panel deciding the fate of a country, but excluding 50 pecent of the population by keeping out the female perspective. The omission sadly echoed the exclusion of Egyptian Muslim women scholars’ from the prestigious Islamic Research Council of Al-Azhar, the most respected and influential Sunni institution in the Muslim world, and the Supreme Constitutional Court. In all of these cases, women were excluded with little thought to the importance their unique voices and perspectives could bring to the table.
Egypt is no exception. Restricted access to religious education and leadership for many Muslim women often equates to locked doors, walled domiciles, restrictions on travel, lack of prayer space, and a strategy of shame and silencing. This picture is a stark contrast to the Muslim community during the time of Prophet Muhammed whose mosque was linked to his wife Aisha bint Abu Baker’s living quarters, where women had equal access to religious space, rituals, and teachings, and often worked to teach and lead mixed groups of believers. Muslims have deep reverence for the prophet’s first wife Khadijah for her dedication to supporting his prophetic mission. We take it for granted that Aisha bint Abu Baker, Umm Salama, and Zeinab bint Muhammad are the main narrators of the prophetic sayings, which are used by Muslim men and women to this day. So it seems the only way to go forward now is to go back, to reclaim an egalitarian Islam with women weighing in on all religious affairs.
Despite equal rights confirmed by the Koran, tribal customary practice, all-male consensus, and isolationist impulses have limited Muslim women’s access to religious education and leadership for centuries. Distorted religious interpretations have played an important role in entrenching such injustice. For instance, Ibn al- Hajj, a fourteenth century scholar and historian, believed women were inherently shameful (a’wrah); hence their voice should not be heard. Ibn al-Hajj denounced the practices of Sufi sheikas because they were not silent, invisible, and subservient to men. He was against women reciting the Koran and leading women in prayers. His teachings contrasted with both the Koran and the prophet’s example, but they became fixed in the minds of many as tenets of Islam.
Just as religion has been used to justify such inequalities, religious education can help counter them. While many male religious scholars have argued for women’s rights in Islam, it is essential that Muslim women reclaim their own legacy as teachers and scholars of sacred text and law and challenge patriarchal interpretations of the Koran. At the July 2009 Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) conference in Kuala Lumpur, convening 200 Muslim women from 44 countries, 89 percent of those polled selected “harmful religious interpretation” as an important or very important barrier to women’s advancement in their country. 93 percent of those polled stated that it is important or very important for women to take a leadership role in religious interpretation and spirituality. This is why we started the Muslim Women’s Shura Council, a global advocacy council of Muslim women scholars, activists and specialists. The Shura Council has already produced a combined study and condemnation of violent extremism and domestic violence, titled Jihad Against Violence. It is now in the process of designing an innovative and rigorous doctoral program to educate Muslim women jurists with the ability and authority to issue fatwas on pressing societal matters.
History shows that societies prosper when women, particularly women of faith, work as equal partners in the making of a just social order. 700 million Muslim women, making up one sixth of all humanity, are ready to draw upon their unique perspectives and rich legacy as peacemakers, spiritual leaders, and scholars of sacred text to promote the principles of gender equality, minority rights, and social justice in Muslim communities. In Egypt and elsewhere, they shattered the dominant perception that Muslim women are passive victims. Without their full participation in secular and religious positions of power, the Arab renaissance risks being stillborn.