Why don’t women occupy decision-making positions in religious institutions?
In the grand mosque of my town, situated in one of the provinces of the Delta, I sit in the area designated for women and notice that the space allocated for them is significantly limited compared to the area reserved for men, separated by a set of seats inscribed with “Reserved for men only.”
Although there is no Quranic text prohibiting women from attending mosques, their presence is marginalized within the mosque premises. It has been perceived that mosques are not places for women, with arguments such as prayers being better performed by women at home or that women should recite prayers in the comfort of their homes. However, mosques are not merely religious spaces; they serve as social hubs where children learn and men build social connections.
Regrettably, the same cannot be said for women. Sherin Khankan, the first female imam in Denmark and founder of the women’s mosque “Mariam,” asserts that men dominate mosques because religious institutions are male-dominated.
Limiting the presence of women in mosques is just one aspect of the broader issue of restricting their participation in public spaces. Women have been primarily confined to the private sphere, specifically the household, which is reflected in their modest presence within religious institutions. They are rarely found in roles such as Quranic reciters, interpreters of the Quran, or female religious scholars—positions that are traditionally monopolized by male religious figures.
This situation is influenced by the social roles expected and imposed on women and men, with leadership roles typically designated for men, while women are cast into stereotypical roles such as wives and mothers. The power dynamics and political vision of countries also contribute to this disparity since many of these religious institutions are government-controlled.
Changing the religious discourse about women after the Arab Spring uprisings
Looking back in time after the outbreak of the Arab Spring uprisings, women’s voices in the Arab world gradually gained momentum. Women’s rights were increasingly brought to the political agenda, addressing issues such as harassment, gender-based violence, personal status laws, and political representation for women. Women engaged in conflicts with religious institutions, and at times, these institutions attempted to accommodate the feminist movement.
For instance, in 2013, Al-Azhar issued a document titled “Al-Azhar Document Supporting Women’s Rights,” affirming the equality of women and men and stating that the state should support equal opportunities for both genders in job positions. However, in other instances, Al-Azhar denounced views that contradicted the official religious narrative, as seen in the case of the statement opposing the TV series Faten Amal Harby by the writer Ibrahim Issa, which addressed the issue of a mother’s right to custody of her children. Al-Azhar’s statement warned against “using women’s rights to divide society.”
This fluctuating stance on women’s rights is evident in the Egyptian Dar Al-Fatwa’s admission in 2012 that it does not see any issue with a woman assuming the presidency, as Islam equates men and women. Nevertheless, this does not explain the reality faced by women. Egypt was ranked 126th out of 135 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report, published in the same year the fatwa was issued, highlighting the gender inequality prevalent in the country.
Supposedly, there is a desire to integrate women into official institutions in Arab countries, following Vision 2030 adopted by United Nations member states in 2015, which includes 17 interconnected goals, including gender equality. However, achieving genuine integration of women in all official institutions, including religious ones, remains a question.
The change in religious discourse about women after the Arab Spring uprisings cannot be overlooked, due to various factors. For instance, in 2020, a fatwa was issued by Dr. Shawqi Allam in response to the claim that women’s leadership positions are prohibited based on the saying, “A people will not succeed if their leader is a woman.” The fatwa declared this claim invalid and stated that the saying was specific to a certain context.
Additionally, some women have been appointed to certain positions within the religious institution in Egypt, such as Dr. Nahla El-Saeedy becoming the first female advisor to the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, and Dr. Ilham Mohamed Shahin being appointed Assistant Secretary-General at the Islamic Research Academy. Egypt also witnessed the establishment of the first female-led Quranic recitations and fatwa councils. However, the question remains whether women can assume leadership roles within the religious institution or if they will continue to be relegated to auxiliary roles, bound by stereotypes.
Tunisian researcher Najia Al-Warimi Bouajila, author of “Leadership of Women in Early Islam,” argues that historical male-dominated readings still persist, suggesting that women are unfit for leadership. This historical perception has led to the distortion and marginalization of women’s leadership, including within religious institutions.
Despite religious institutions attempting to negotiate with women and make certain arrangements, men still dominate these institutions. The challenge lies in how women’s leadership positions translate and impact the conditions of other women in society. Does women’s access to decision-making positions support a feminist vision, or does it merely reinforce male-centric perspectives that govern these institutions?
Egyptian researcher Heba Salah, specializing in gender and development studies, stated that the religious institution, like other institutions where women and men coexist in the public sphere, faces general challenges due to internal policies of some institutions and prevalent stereotypes about women; these obstacles deliberately or inadvertently hinder women from reaching leadership positions.
She added that “despite the prevailing male-oriented culture in religious institutions, Al-Azhar University opened its doors to female students with the issuance of Law No. 103/1961 to regulate Al-Azhar’s affairs.
“However, women remained excluded from assuming leadership positions, including in issuing fatwas and preaching. Recently, this began to change with the emergence of female researchers and female muftis. They now lead in written and oral fatwas and public interactions. Among them, a unit called ‘Dialogue’ in Dar Al-Fatwa is responsible for women’s studies and addressing domestic violence. Additionally, Dar Al-Fatwa celebrated its first female researcher in the Fatwa Committee.”
Salah noted that female preachers have succeeded in changing the perception of women’s presence in the field of religious preaching and fatwa, as the prevailing notion used to be that women were only capable of dealing with women’s issues.
She pointed out that the policy of gender discrimination within the religious institution stems from its conservative nature, which prioritizes the appointment of men. “Despite the existence of an open-minded faction supporting gender equality in appointments, the prevailing male-oriented culture does not view women as qualified to produce religious knowledge,” Salah explained.
Is there a role for women in religious discourse?
It can be said that the effective presence of women in religious institutions is linked to their production of religious knowledge, such as interpretations of sacred religious texts like the Quran and Hadith, using a gendered lens and engaging with the heritage from a feminist perspective, as asserted by Dr. Oumaima Abu Bakr, a feminist researcher and professor of English literature. However, these voices are not present within government-controlled religious institutions, as Abu Bakr pointed out.
The production of religious knowledge in Christianity is no exception. According to Abu Bakr’s book “Feminism and Religious Studies,” men have been the primary producers of Christian knowledge, reflecting their medieval culture, which was antagonistic toward women. Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning that women holding church positions is now common in the Arab world, particularly in Lebanon and Syria. Additionally, Sally Azar became the first ordained female pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.
There are other Arab feminist voices exploring women’s production of Islamic religious knowledge and re-reading the heritage through a gendered lens. These voices view the interpretations that reach us as the product of male jurists, influenced by their understanding and society.
Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi argued in her book “Political Harem – The Prophet and Women” that the opinions of jurists and hardliners change over time and circumstances. Mernissi also attempted to interpret some Quranic verses on hierarchy. Additionally, Moroccan feminist writer and physician Asma Lamrabet, in her book “Women in Islam: A Reformist Vision,” states that Islam is confined by accumulated human interpretations, both in religious production and mindsets. These interpretations are hostile to women’s presence in the religious knowledge space and call for re-reading religious texts from a female and feminist perspective to liberate women.
We don’t need to agree with what women produce in terms of religious interpretations and knowledge, and it is not necessarily representative of all women in society. However, their presence in all state institutions, including religious institutions, is an attempt to break the male monopoly over the public sphere.
written by: Mirhan Fouad