What are fatwas and muftis?
A fatwa is a legal ruling by a Muslim jurist called a mufti. Fatwas are often misunderstood to be death sentences because of the Salman Rushdie affair. But my analysis of hundreds of thousands of fatwas in online fatwa collections reveals that most rulings are about the mundane issues of daily life: how to properly worship, deal with family conflicts, maintain personal purity and operate in the modern economy while observing Islam’s prohibition on interest. In fact, the most popular fatwas on the Arabic-language fatwa collection at Islamway.com are not about violence, but about sex.
Many Muslim-majority countries have official fatwa councils. Saudi Arabia’s decision to add women to these councils is not particularly pathbreaking. There is a long, if contested, tradition of women’s authority in Islam, and women hold official religious positions in Morocco, Turkey and elsewhere. The Saudi government has no doubt examined these experiments and deemed it prudent — and harmless to their grip on power — to install women as state muftis.
Official fatwa councils are typically intended to provide Islamic legal cover for state policies, not advice on personal problems. But state policies inevitably have personal effects, and this is especially evident in countries like Saudi Arabia where acceptable behaviors for women in the private sphere are highly regulated. It is here that women can be especially useful as muftis because they are seen has having natural legitimacy to issue rulings on “women’s issues.”
Will women on fatwa councils rule in support of women’s rights?
Adding women to fatwa councils long reserved for men may seem like progress for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. It probably is not. It is likely that the fatwas coming from female Salafi muftis will be just as restricting to women as those from their male counterparts.
To understand the types of legal rulings that women might offer as muftis in Saudi Arabia, I analyzed the writings of 172 male and 43 female preachers writing on the Islamic online library Saaid.net. This website is popular in Saudi Arabia and it has the same conservative Salafi orientation as the Saudi religious establishment.
The role of women on this website is partly to write on so-called women’s issues. I find that the bulk of women’s writing is devoted to three broad topics: women, teaching Islam to youth and combating Westernizing influences in Islam. Fighting Westernization is seen as a women’s issue because Salafi norms for women’s behavior are starkly at odds with Western notions of women’s rights. And it is here that female Salafi preachers have the most to offer in rhetorical support for the patriarchal norms of Salafism. For example, female preacher Noha Katergi rails against the United Nations convention for women’s rights in documents like “The Influence of International Agreements on Local Laws and Ways of Protecting Societies from their Dangers.” Women on this website also write to oppose abortion, support norms limiting sexual consent in marriage, and minimize the existence of honor killings and other violence against women, all in the name of defending Islam from Western intrusion.
How women can legitimize the patriarchal status quo
This is a key reason women are permitted some religious authority in a patriarchal movement like Salafism. They are uniquely qualified to make arguments of the form “I’m a woman, and I don’t want the West’s so-called ‘women’s rights.’” Giving these women more authority will not lead to a flowering of women’s rights in the kingdom.
Though the identities of the female muftis haven’t been announced, they will probably be those who uphold what some call the “patriarchal bargain” of Saudi society: Women carve out spheres of influence in society for themselves by offering their efforts to uphold a broader system of societal patriarchy. The price for a seat at the table is often that women must prove themselves to be even more hard line than their male counterparts.
Those in the West who are eager for signs of genuine liberalization in Saudi Arabia will probably be disappointed by the appointment of female jurists. These new jurists are as likely to oppose women’s rights as to support them.
Richard Nielsen is an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Deadly Clerics: Blocked Ambition and the Paths to Jihad” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).