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Women in Islam: Behind the veil and in front of it

At first glance, the role of women in Islamic countries seems identical. However, there is no theological basis for a such a unified image of women in Islam. The women themselves are making sure of it.

Muhammad Salih al-Munajjid is not really that old. Nevertheless, despite being born to Palestinian refugees living in Syria in 1960, and having lived in Saudi Arabia since he was a child, the opinions issued by this religious scholar read like documents from a time long, long ago.

He publishes his opinions on "IslamQA.info," the most popular Salafist website in the Arab speaking world. There, for instance, a young man asks him for the answer to a seemingly difficult question: What is the status of the many "slaves" that live in his home of Saudi Arabia? Can one have sexual intercourse with them? Even if one is married? The questioner himself does not define a "slave" - he assumes that this is common knowledge. In Saudi Arabia the term refers to the many Southeast Asian housemaids that work in the country.

Scholarly consensus

The religious expert knows the answer: "Islam allows a man to have sexual intercourse with a slave, no matter whether the man is married or single." As justification, the scholar recites Koran passages, the biography of the prophet Mohammed and the opinions of leading sheikhs. "The scholars," he summarizes, "are unanimous in this assessment, and no one is permitted to view this act as forbidden, or to forbid it. Whoever does so, is a sinner, and is acting against the consensus of the scholars."

Saudi women shopping in Riyadh

Saudi women shopping at a mall in Riyadh

The fatwa on the sexual availability of Asians, who have in fact only come to Saudi Arabia to carry out home cleaning duties, is just one of a universe full of fatwas that Saudi religious scholars publish on the role of women day after day.

Social anthropologist Madawi al-Rasheed, who teaches at the London School of Economics, estimates that in the second half of the 20th century alone, Saudi religious scholars issued more than 30,000 fatwas. Marriage, personal hygiene, medical questions: there is no area in which these pious men have not had something to say.

Veil as symbol

The religious scene in Saudi Arabia, dominated by ultra-conservative Wahhabis, represents one end of the spectrum in a vast discussion on the role of women in Islam. On the other end are the women themselves - often secular or Islamic feminists whose answers are diametrically opposed to those of the Wahhabis.

There is only one point upon which they all agree: That the issue of how to deal with women is of central importance in Islam. The Tunisian feminist and historian Sophie Bessis says that Islamic theologians are trying harder than ever to force a religious identity on Middle Eastern countries.

She says that identity is based on signs and symbols reflected in traditionally dressed Muslim women. "Identity = religion = veiled women, is a triptych that Islamist movements propagate to Arabs," writes Bessis in her book, "The Arabs, Women, Freedom."

A vice squad policeman in Tehran stops women for improper clothing

A vice squad policeman in Tehran stops women for improper clothing

For years, the veil has been the sign that Muslims and non-Muslims alike have most strongly identified with Islam. But signs can have many meanings. What could the veil mean? Over the last several years many Western feminists have wanted to see it as a symbol of female emancipation.

But Ibtissam Bouachrine, who was born in Morocco and is now an associate professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, disagrees. In her book, "Women in Islam. Myths, Apologies and the Limits of Feminist Critique," she writes that, "As a 'mobile home' the veil is always a reminder that the natural place for the woman in Islam is at home."

Interpreting the Koran

But must orthodox Muslims really be so concerned about keeping their daughters and wives at home, or covering them in a veil when that is not possible? Professor Amina Wadud, a progressive Islamic scholar in the USA, writes that one cannot interpret the Koran in the same way today that one did at the time it was written.

Islam knows no overarching theological hierarchy. Numerous interpretations exist side by side. That makes theological questions difficult to answer, especially questions about the role of women.

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