A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Syria: where the sisters will soon be doin’ it for themselves :)

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 3, 2008

Several summers ago, a network of women brought me new friends in Damascus. My aunt had made a Palestinian friend while living in one Gulf country, and that woman in turn had made a Syrian friend while living in another Gulf country years before. And she in turn introduced me to her friends – a group of devout, deeply conservative but also deeply modern women of varying ages.

I remember one pair of women in particular, a mother in her mid-forties and her daughter, a very articulate college student: two fair-haired women dressed in white scarves and beige manteaux, the full-length double-breasted raincoat-style outer garment that many modern-but-pious women wear in the Levant.

When I asked the daughter what she studied, I expected that the answer would be business or medicine – one of the practical, professional status, you’ll-always-have-a-job degrees that parents favor in the Middle East (well, not only in the Middle East – think of all the humorous groaning in the US about children who decide to major in English Literature!).

I’m studying law, she told me.

Ah, I thought. Right. Law is another preferred degree, along with engineering.

What kind of law? I asked, making conversation but doubting that she would have settled on a specialty already.

Sharia, she told me, smiling confidently. And when I finish, I will become a lawyer in the religious courts.

Wow. This was not the answer I was expecting – but I loved the passion and the confidence that came through in her answer. She explained that while in Syria’s secular courts men and women lawyers could represent clients of either gender, in the religious courts women could only represent women clients.

But she saw this restriction not as a limitation, but as an opportunity. She felt that as a woman she could provide better representation to women and children in the court system.

We met three years ago, and I’m sure she has graduated by now. I bet she’s a terrific lawyer, and I bet that one of these days she will become a mufti – a member of the legal system empowered to issue rulings on religious legal matters.

A mufti isn’t exactly the same as a judge (qadi in Arabic), since his or her decisions are not as binding – but its a respected position, one that only those with a deep and judicious understanding of religious law can hold.

Why do I think she will become a mufti? Because Syria is now allowing women to hold this position – a very liberal step that not all Muslim countries accept.

Here’s the article I found, thanks as always to Google’s news alerts:

Syrian women have largely welcomed the news that female muftis are to be trained up to fill a role that has generally been monopolised by men.

Several local and foreign Arabic-language news sites reported earlier this month that Grand Mufti Ahmed Badr Hasun, the top Muslim cleric in Syria, announced that female graduates of Islamic law colleges are being trained to become muftis who will counsel women on religious matters.

Hasun also made it clear that some female muftis would be appointed to the Iftaa Council, a body which he chairs and which oversees the issuing of fatwas, or religious edicts.

Muftis are Islamic scholars who are empowered to provide religious guidance on personal and political matters. Until now, women in Syria, as in many countries, have had to turn to male muftis even when their concerns are gender-specific or personal.

“Iftaa [the giving of counsel] is a difficult task and a huge responsibility that men are barely able to hardly shoulder,” said a 41-year-old devoutly Muslim woman from Damascus countryside.

“Iftaa for women’s matters is a good thing. It saves women being embarrassed about issues such as marital relations and other things that they are sensitive about, like menstruation.”

Hasun made the comments during a visit by American academics to Damascus, but it was not the first time he has discussed the programme for women muftis. According to a February 2006 report by the United Nations Development Programme, Hasun told representatives of this UN agency of plans to appoint two female members of the Iftaa Council, and said women had served as muftis in earlier times. The news was not widely reported in Syria or abroad.

Hasun repeated the case for female muftis when he met the US scholars, and reportedly said dozens of women were being trained.

A male teacher of Sharia or Islamic law at a Damascus high school, speaking on condition of anonymity, welcomed the decision.

“Women are permitted to be appointed muftis under Sharia,” he said. “In Islamic history there have been a large number of female muftis and jurists.”

He said that female muftis must fulfil the same requirements as men by demonstrating the right level of knowledge of Islam, having a reputation as a pious individual, and receiving official permission to issue fatwas.

You can read the rest of the article here.

2 Responses to “Syria: where the sisters will soon be doin’ it for themselves :)”

  1. intlxpatr said

    Aren’t there also female mufti in Egypt?

  2. I don’t know – there very well might be. There are some very strong women in the conservative Muslim movements in Egypt, so there could well be women muftis. I’ll look into it 🙂

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