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Muslim Women

by Joyce M. Davis

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The streets around Cairo’s Al Azhar University are choked with smoke-belching cars that groan past red lights in horn-blaring desperation. Booksellers cater to the flood of pilgrims and students, many of whom have traveled hundreds of miles to pray at Al Azhar’s mosque or to study with scholars at the world’s oldest institute of Islamic thought. For most Muslims throughout the world, the scholars at Al Azhar are the preeminent authorities on Islam. Their interpretations of the Quran and the hadiths, the sayings and deeds of Muhammad, are accepted by millions of Muslims. And their pronouncements, called fatwahs, are taken by some as religious law.

Their interpretations of the Quran say polygamy is permissible, though monogamy is encouraged; divorce is tolerated, though it is hated; and it should be easier for a man to divorce his wife than vice versa.

These issues concern women, and many Muslim women feel that some of the interpretations of the Quran made by the overwhelmingly male religious authorities need revision.

In fact it is a male domain behind the great walls of Al Azhar. Dr. Ali Ghomaah, a professor there, can not even conceive of the day when a woman would be learned enough to issue a fatwah.

“Theoretically it is perfectly possible,” says Dr. Ghomaah, also an official with the international Institute of Islamic Thought in Cairo. “But as of yet, no woman has been able to reach the level of mufti to be able to issue a fatwah.Islam is very clear about the role of women.

“In Islam, woman is seen as a delicate, fragile crystal.… Islam has decreed that men and women are similar. The only difference between them is that women should not have to carry out certain acts which are incompatible with their physical strength, such as fighting and going to war,” he continues.

But in many parts of the Muslim world – in Iran, Libya, the Sudan, even Indonesia – Muslim women do indeed go into war and serve as soldiers in the armed services.

Not only do Muslims disagree on whether women should become soldiers, but there are many opinions on the proper role of women in Muslim societies, opinions that differ drastically from those of religious authorities in the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia women are unable to vote or drive. They are denied access to many professions and restricted in travel. In Kuwait and other countries in the Persian Gulf, women are unable to vote or run for public office. While women vote and even participate in the armed services in Iran, religious pressure keeps them veiled and restricted in public life.

This is in sharp contrast to the status of women in other parts of the Muslim world, particularly in Southeast Asia, home to more than 70 percent of the world’s Muslims. There, women have helped create postcolonial societies that guarantee them equal civil rights and access to high government office. Women in the Middle East are starting to push for the same rights.

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Tags: Middle East Muslim Islam Women (rights/issues) Quran