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A bid to bring the female voice to Islamic law

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 21, 2006


For centuries, devout Muslims have looked to the fatwa – an opinion based on religious reasoning of a learned individual or committee – for direction on how to resolve moral dilemmas ranging from the mundane to the sublime. And for centuries, Muslim women have conceded the ground, for the most part, to the men who issue these opinions.

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That's beginning to change.

Meeting in New York over the weekend, Muslim women from 25 countries began laying groundwork for the first international all-female council formed to issue fatwas. Their idea: to ensure that women's perspectives on Islamic law become part of religious deliberation in the Muslim world – particularly on issues such as domestic violence, divorce, and inheritance.

"There's this growing sense on the part of literate Muslim women ... that there is a vital need for women to confront the Islamic tradition and to work on a par with men in interpreting the sources," says Ann Mayer, an expert in Middle Eastern law at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. "Otherwise you end up with a very sexist bias in the readings."

The number of women officially sanctioned to issue fatwas is hard to pin down, but certainly tiny. The emergence of such women, known as muftias, usually makes headlines: A religious school in India installed three in 2003, and the Turkish government last year hired two assistant muftias, its first. Governments and schools try to license who can issue fatwas, but Islam stipulates only certain prerequisites, such as knowledge of the Koran and Arabic. As a result, the ranks of unofficial authorities are deeper and the barriers to women surmountable.

Whether the opinions of a women's council will carry any weight, especially in conservative cultures, is another matter.

Its advent is proving to be controversial even among Muslim women who share many goals of those launching the council.

"Advancing the idea of reinterpreting the texts has to be done, but I am totally against this initiative because it will have negative effects," says Rebab al-Mahdi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. It will be portrayed as part of "a Western cultural invasion," she adds. "This is what conservative clerics always say, and people listen."

For others, doubt is mingled with hope.

"I share some cynicism, but at the same moment, symbols are sometimes important," says Pakistani-born Asma Barlas, a politics professor at Ithaca College in New York and a prominent advocate of jettisoning what she calls male-centric and incorrect interpretations of the Koran. "These little steps, ... even if they don't change anything, do send a message that women are getting together and trying to make their voices heard."

The group is also up against the inertia of tradition. Throughout history, few Muslim women were prominent jurists, though scholars are uncovering more, including, some say, Aisha, the prophet Muhammad's wife. Some question whether much within the religion is open to new interpretation and, by extension, reform. Others note that fatwas are nonbinding and may have little effect on civil law and state judgments.

Still, Muslim women have recently brought change by citing the Koran and other Islamic sources:

•In Malaysia, a group called Sisters in Islam used Koranic scholarship to rebuff efforts to exclude Muslims from a domestic-abuse law.

•In Saudi Arabia, an effort this summer to push women further back at a crowded holy site in Mecca was thwarted with the help of a female Islamic scholar's arguments.