Sunday, 21 September 2008

Women of God : Syrian Women Muftis

A project unique in the Islamic world is training Muslim women to become muftis in Syria.

June, Syria’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Badruddin Hassoun announced that he is personally supervising a project that trains Syrian women to serve as muftis – Sunni religious figures officially authorised to issue Islamic religious rulings. While a handful of Syrian Muslim women scholars and preachers are already unofficially issuing rulings, known as fatwas, and conducting Islamic lessons in mosques and elsewhere, the grand mufti’s initiative will for the first time allow women to officially interpret Islamic law.

The move to train women as muftis has been welcomed by the Syrian government as giving Syria’s 9 million Muslim women a great push forward, particularly among extremely conservative members of this community.

“I think the mufti wants to send a message to Syrian society and the world at large that there is no difference between men and women in work, life, mental stature and even religious positions,” Dialah Haj Aref, minister of Social Affairs and Labour, said. “It also shows that women and men are equal in giving advice and opinions and in issuing fatwas.”

Asma Kiftaro, a feminist Muslim scholar at the Damascus-based Islamic Studies Center, said the move to train female muftis would be welcomed by Syria’s Muslim women. “It is an important and courageous step by the grand mufti,” she said.

Kiftaro, who is presently being considered as an advisor to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, said female Muslim scholars are increasingly calling for a greater role in government and religious institutions in line with their modern aspirations.

While Syrian women occupy 12 percent of the country’s parliamentary seats and a number of high positions within the government, including the vice-presidency, no official female Muslim scholar has gained such a position. “There are many women in parliament but not one of them is a Muslim scholar who speaks in the name of Muslim women,” Kiftaro said.

Religious and secular concern
While government figures have publicly welcomed the move, heralding it as a positive push in the development of women, the decision to train women as muftis has drawn heavy fire from conservative clerics.

Nominating a woman to a position on the Syrian Iftaa Council, the institute in charge of issuing fatwas, is seen by many as the first step in introducing female muftis throughout the Muslim world, a move many bitterly oppose.

“I have met with many conservative scholars who have expressed their strong opposition to the mufti’s statements,” Kiftaro said

The new breed of female Muslim scholars is not only causing concern among Syria’s conservative religious scholars. The growing organisation of Islamic women’s groups is also causing much angst among Syria’s secular community.

Attallah Rumheen, a professor at Damascus University who has documented the rising fundamentalism within Syria’s universities, said religious fundamentalism has long been on the rise in Syria.

“In the 1960s and 70s there were two or three muhajabah (women who wear Islamic head cover) students out of 100 female students in a class,” Rumheen said. “Today it’s the opposite. Today I only see a few female students without a hijab in my class.”

Georgette Attiah, a secular Syrian feminist writer, said what concerns the country’s secular society is not the number of women wearing the hijab, but rather the number of female Islamic groups and organisations that are expanding their activities in the fields of education, social services and charity. Many like Attiah feel such activities are simply a cover for the wider goal of Islamising Syrian society.

“These groups attract Muslim women who are mothers, sisters and wives. By appealing to them they can extend their influence into all families who make up the country’s Muslim community,” Attiah said. “They want to Islamise Syrian society, which is not purely Muslim.”

One of the most secret and controversial of these Muslim groups is the Qubaysiat, a quasi-Sufi Islamic group that was founded by Munirah al-Qubaysi in Syria and has reportedly spread to many other countries.

Qubaysi, 75, graduated from Damascus University with a degree in natural sciences in the mid-1950s and began working as a school teacher. In the early 1960s, Qubaysi began mixing preaching with teaching from the Abu Nour Mosque, at that time headed by Syria’s late and long-serving Grand Mufti Ahmed Kiftaro, Asma Kiftaro’s grandfather.

The group, which shuns media attention, organises religious lessons in homes and has been instrumental in spreading religious sentiment among young women throughout the Middle East. According to a report in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat newspaper, the group now boasts some 75,000 members throughout the Muslim world.

Iman, a 36-year-old mother and housewife from the conservative Damascus suburb of Midaan who attends Qubaysiat meetings, said the group does not face problems from authorities. “We are a peaceful group and we call for believers to pray to God and follow Islamic principles through peaceful means,” she said.

Others, however, are not convinced the group is devoid of political ambition. Ubai Hassan, a Syrian expert on Islamic movements and minorities, said women’s Islamic groups have mushroomed rapidly in Syria as there are very few other forums for women to voice their problems. “Women are joining Qubaysiat either to root their position in society or for prestige in the upper class,” she said.

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