A Muslim woman walking on the streets of Cairo, Egypt. (photo: Tom Stevens)
With their husbands and sons imprisoned or dead, Palestinian women are in the forefront of the intifada. (photo: Karen Lagerquist)
Egyptian students at the American University in Cairo. (photo: Tom Stevens)
A woman waits for her bus at the end of her workday, Cairo. (photo: Tom Stevens)
An Egyptian a woman making pita bread in Giza. (photo: Karen Lagerquist)
The streets around Cairos 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 Azhars mosque or to study with scholars at the worlds 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 worlds 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.
As Leila Ahmed wrote in her book Women, Gender and Islam, The meaning of gender as elaborated by establishment Islam remained the controlling discourse in the Muslim Middle East until about the beginning of the 19th century. Unambiguously and on all levels cultural, legal, social and institutional the social system as it devised and informed was one that controlled and subordinated women, marginalized them economically, and arguably conceptualized them as human beings inferior to men. But she also notes, In the course of the last century or so, women in a significant number of Arab countries have attained civil and political rights and virtually equal access to education.
That access to education has dramatically changed Muslim women and their relationship with religion and society. This change is especially pronounced in places like Malaysia and Indonesia, where Muslim women are working as professionals, businesswomen and government officials. Their gains are serving as an example and an inspiration to their peers in the Middle East.
Religious authorities in the Middle East now find they are coming under increasing criticism from women activists seeking a role in government and public life, and protection inside the home.
Many Muslim women believe the Quran actually prohibits polygamy in practice. They maintain that it sets restrictions that cannot be met, such as absolute equality to all wives.
There are those such as Egypts Supreme Court Justice Said Al Ashmauwie who argue that many of the social laws stipulated in the Quran were not meant to be taken literally, but were only applicable to societies that existed during Muhammads lifetime. What I am saying, says the court justice, is that some things in the Quran are changeable. They apply to conditions that existed centuries ago. If those conditions change, then the rules should change.
He points to the Islamic law that states that in legal matters the testimony of two women equals that of a man.
This was applicable when women were uneducated and confined to the home, he says. But today, it should no longer be in effect.
Al Ashmauwie considers himself a liberal Muslim, one of a group calling for an updated interpretation of the Quran. These calls come not only from Islams left, but even from those who might be considered fundamentalists. In fact, men throughout the Islamic intellectual spectrum are adding their voices to those of women seeking change.
But while the Islamic world has ample share of what the West would call feminists, the secular feminist movement seems to have little attraction for many Muslim women, especially in the Middle East. As one Muslim woman put it, The feminist movement comes from the unique experience of Western women and is a reaction to their culture. For us, it sometimes represents the worst of Western culture: promiscuity, sexual exploitation of women and adultery.
Throughout the Islamic world, womens movements that base their activism in Islamic doctrine make the greatest gains.
According to a Los Angeles Times commentary by Fadwa Al Guindi, a Middle East specialist and anthropologist, The early 1970s saw an Islamic reawakening throughout the Arab and Islamic East, with a strong womens activist presence. As part of the 1970s movement, women began acquiring literacy in Islamic matters, which fostered their interest in Islams original sources and the interpretive process.
For many women, she continues, this became an avenue of legitimate access to the force previously inaccessible to them, an opportunity for the first time in a millennium to have a dynamic role in the Islamic process.
Al Guindi also notes, These activists also posed a challenge to the Islamic Establishment. These women, in their knowledge of and adherence to Islamic principles, released men from the role of authority over them in Islamic matters.
Muslim women, she says, are now offering their own interpretations of the Quran and the hadiths. They point to Quranic texts that say men and women are equal. They point out that one of the main sources of Islamic doctrine was Aesha, the wife of Muhammad. And they point to the examples of many strong women who fought to spread Islam, even on the battlefield. According to Fatima Naseef, an Islamic scholar in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the best hope for change in the more conservative societies of the Middle East is through the true message of Islam.
Naseef operates an institute for religious studies for women in Jeddah. She believes that the only hope for some societies is through educating them about Islamic doctrine.
First you educate women about the Quran and about their rights, Naseef says, and then they can fight on a strong basis but many women are so confused now; they dont know what is right and what is wrong.
Naseef believes that the concerns of Muslim women are fundamentally different from those of Western women.
Staying at home and wearing the hijab (a scarf) is the prime concern of Western women when they look at us, states Naseef. There is nothing in Islam that should keep a woman at home if she wants to work, but covering is another matter. Many young women see no problem with being active in public life and covering, or wearing modest dress with a scarf over the head.
Nuns wear it, she continues. And why? Because it is modest and shows their closeness to God. We do it for the same reason.
Many young women in the Middle East say they cover as a statement to men that they have a right to public life without the burden of sexual harassment. And that wearing the hijab and modest clothing allows them freedom and independence in the workplace.
But Wisal Al Mahdi, an Islamic activist who has started an international womens organization based in Khartoum, Sudan, sees an even greater difference between the Western feminist and the Islamic feminist. She believes too many Western women have abandoned their role in the home for careers. And she says Muslim women must always put their families first.
A woman in Islam should first be responsible and care for her family because they need her most, Al Mahdi says. Then, if her children are grown up and they dont need her anymore, she can have spare time to give to the people around her in the public life.
This is the recurring theme among Muslim women, whether they tend toward feminism or conservatism. They believe Islam raised motherhood to near sanctity and that a womans first priority, as a pillar of the home, is the family. For that reason, Muslim feminists want to make sure that as they strive to improve their status, they do not hurt the family. Because whatever else they achieve in public life, most Muslim women believe their highest calling is a private one as wives and mothers protected, not oppressed, by the word of God.
Joyce M. Davis is Middle East editor on the Foreign Desk of National Public Radio.