Q'uran on Women’s Leadership

Featured Community Voice: Anne Sofie Roald

Anne-Sofie Roald is an associate professor at the University of Malmo, Sweden, a program director at Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway, and author of Women in Islam: The Western Experience. A historian of religion and convert to Islam, her main work has been in the field of Islamism, gender and migration studies. In this interview she speaks about the past and present of women's political participation in Muslim countries. She explains that women's involvement in politics is a result of Islamic religious and cultural understanding of gender roles.

11th Century North African Quran exhibited at the British Museum, London, England. View Larger >

Why did you start studying Islam, gender and democracy?

I started studying comparative religions in the 1970s because I was fascinated by both religious fakeHeaders and foreign cultures. I was also interested in politics and since Islam has a reputation of being a "political religion," I chose to specialize in Islam.

Because I was also a feminist and active in the women liberation movement in Norway at the time, I found it very important to critically study gender issues in Islam.

What inspired you to write Women in Islam?

Gender studies in Islam fascinated me because I learned that, among Muslims, there exist widely differing opinions about gender. I decided to examine the religious sources (Qur'an as well as the hadiths, which are reported sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) in order to find out exactly which views were based on the religious sources and which were based on cultural beliefs.

I was also curious about whether religious expressions of Muslims changed when they moved from one cultural context to another and I therefore focused on leading Arabic-speaking Muslims of various affiliations living in Europe.

What did you learn about gender and Islam?

My main discovery was that scholars in various parts of the world understood the Islamic texts on gender differently. These differences in interpretation resulted from differences in the scholars' social and cultural settings. They were also determined by the time period they lived in.

I discovered that there was a difference of opinion among leading Arabic-speaking Muslims living in the Middle East and those living in Europe. The view of female circumcision, for instance, differs between Muslims living in areas where this practice is common and Muslims who, coming from these same areas, have moved to Europe. The latter tended to be much more influenced by the human rights and equal opportunity paradigm.

My study discredited the common notion that there is a difference between "Islam" and "Muslim culture." I found out that it is more or less impossible to distinguish between the two. The holy texts are necessarily interpreted according to time and place and the biography of the interpreter (that is, the Islamic scholar), and the Islamic rules are therefore completely and unavoidably intermingled with cultural expressions.

Can you give us some historical examples of Muslim women political leaders?

The story of the Sudanese Islamist, Souad al-Fatih, during the 1960s is worth mentioning. She was very active in the protests against the leftist in Sudan: She shouted slogans while being carried by the male demonstrators. She led the procession and her appearance was regal; she called people to action while seated on a chair that was placed on top of the men's heads.

Another important example of women's political participation is Zaynab al-Ghazali. She was a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. It is worthwhile to note that until 1994, the Muslim Brotherhood did not accept women in leadership positions. Zaynab al-Ghazali, however, writes in her autobiography that she worked very closely with the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, and that she played a prominent role in developing the organization's ideas and politics.

Why have some Muslim countries only recently extended political rights to women?

There are three reasons: economy (most countries with Muslim majority are developing countries), late democratization, and religious understandings. Late democratization has made it more difficult for women to be accepted in political offices since there were no political offices to be occupied and no elections to be held in the first place. As a result, there is a lack in leadership training among women in these countries.

Moreover, the specific understanding of Islam in that part of the world has made it difficult for women to participate in politics. However, views about women's political participation are changing.

The Islamists have radically changed their view about the role of women in Muslim society. The Muslim Brotherhood's 1994 directive about women's political participation states that a woman can be active in all political activities and positions except as a leader. That was an incredible step forward and it has influenced Islamist policy in many other Muslim countries.

In Pakistan in the 1960s, Sayyid Abul A'la Mawdudi's theological discussion of the holy texts concerning female leadership at the time when Fatima Jinnah run for presidency has laid the ground for later acceptance of female leadership in Islamic contexts.

More recently, Fatima Mernissi and Muhammad al-Ghazali have also used the same arguments based on the religious sources as al-Mawdudi to argue women's place at the decision-making table.

Saudi Arabian women still cannot vote or run for election. Why is that?

Granting women the right to vote is not as problematic as letting women run for office. But because the former will undoubtedly lead to the latter, some Muslim societies have denied women the right to vote.

In Saudi Arabia, the traditional Hanbal law-school understanding of gender roles has made many, both men and women, regard women's political participation in negative terms. A great part of the population has internalized this particular cultural pattern and this particular understanding of Islam and is complacent about claiming political rights.

Why is women's running for office so much more controversial than women's voting?

The reason is the hadith on female leadership, which has been used for all it's worth. The hadith says: "A people which has a woman as a leader will never prosper."

This hadith is interpreted in various ways. The most traditional and conservative scholars say it means that women can never be leaders while the most liberal interpret this hadith in view of the historical context it originated in to mean that it is the best person, regardless of gender, who should be the leader.

The liberals consider the hadith to have been misunderstood and misinterpreted. The Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi, for example, focuses on the political situation at the time the hadith was related by its narrator Abu Bakra in order to interpret its meaning. According to her, Abu Bakra related this hadith because he was forced to choose alliance between the Caliph Ali and A'isha (the Prophet's wife) just before the battle of the Camel in 656, 24 years after the death of the Prophet.

It is important to note that it is clear from the Prophet's biography that women took part in political negotiation and discussion. For this reason, voting is mostly regarded as unproblematic in Muslim countries. One example of women's decision-making presence at the time of the Prophet is to be found in the story about the second pledge of al-Aqaba. Here, while living in Mecca, the Prophet goes with some 70 men and two women to negotiate with the people of Medina. This was a preparation for the coming hijra to Medina.

What kind of future do you envision for women politicians in Muslim countries?

I believe that with increased democratization in the Muslim world, women will necessarily get more influence in actual political life. Hayat al-Masimi from the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, was, for instance, a member of the Jordanian parliament for some years in the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Hayat al-Masimi believes that a woman can hold any position except for being a khalifa, a position which today is only hypothetical. It is obvious that her experience as a leading politician has made her believe that there should be no limitations to female leadership.

In the last 10 to 15 years we have witnessed a rapid development in ideas on women and their social roles. To a large extent, this has to do with the increase in the number of highly educated women and the influence of the human rights paradigm on religious and cultural thought all over the world. Whether more Muslim women will reach the highest position in their countries is difficult to say, but that there will be an increase in female political participation, that I am sure of.

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