A giant leap forward for Muslim women

World's first female muftis to be appointed next year

While I was in the United Arab Emirates recently, the newspapers were dominated by a single subject -- the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. One of the first news items to clear F1 off the front page was a remarkable story which, to my surprise, does not appear to have been picked up anywhere in the British media. And that is that the emirate of Dubai has announced it intends to appoint what, it appears, will be the world's first state-sanctioned female muftis (interpreters or expounders of sharia law) next year.

Justifying the move, the Grand Mufti of Dubai, Dr Ahmed al-Haddad, said:

Evidence points to the fact that women, too, can order acts of virtue and ban acts of vice just like a man can. And of course she can do that only with acquired scholarship and training, which is what female contemporaries of the Prophet have done as well as the women who came after them.

In many Muslim countries women are already involved with the issuing of fatwas, or legal rulings, but frequently these are confined to "female issues". Dr al-Haddad, however, argues that "a woman who is learned and trained in issuing fatwas is not limited in her role to issuing fatwas that relate to women only, but rather she is qualified to issue on matters of worship, jurisprudence, morality and behaviour".

This will be noted particularly in Egypt, where Soad Saleh, professor of comparative jurisprudence at Cairo's famed al-Azhar University, has been campaigning for ten years for a female mufti to be appointed. Long a prominent authority on religion, Saleh says Egypt's Grand Mufti was enthusiastic when she first mentioned it, but that nothing has happened since.

Saleh was careful to make the following point when asked about the cause of the delay: "These are social attitudes that date back a long, long time, which we must not attribute to Islam. Because Islam, which honoured women and gave them all their rights, can never be guilty of them."

This line -- that it is man-made rules that need to change, not religion -- is strengthened by the UAE being the first place where these first muftis will be appointed. For, however true the image of the Emirates as an easygoing boom state may be for expats, it is still a highly traditional society which observes a conservative form of Islam. If Malaysia or Indonesia, for instance, had been the first to train female muftis, the move could have been dismissed as the deviant product of overly (and openly) liberal Muslim elites. Not so in the Arabian Gulf.

If the Grand Mufti of Dubai was accused of being a liberal or a reformist, he would probably be mightily offended and would repudiate such descriptions in the strongest terms. Islam needs no "liberalising" or "reforming", he would say. He is merely clearing away the clutter and accretion of male-dominated tradition and culture.

This is an important pointer for the future, as western critics of Islam tend to assume that women's rights in Muslim countries can only be safeguarded and increased through secular means, by pushing religion aside. But in Islamic states, it is much more likely that women's emancipation will come from within their religion, from enlightened individuals such as Dr al-Haddad.

Those who say this is not enough, or ask why it has taken so long for Islam to accept women in such positions, should perhaps turn their thoughts to the Catholic Church. It has, after all, been around for over 600 years longer than Islam; and it is still nowhere near letting women into the priesthood. The reason for this is that, crucially, Christ's disciples were all men, whereas, as Dr al-Haddad points out, Muslims can look to several examples of women in positions of religious and political authority in and around the time of the Prophet. Let us hope that more, like him, choose to do so.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty
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There are sinister goings-on in the race to become the UN's next Secretary-General

The United Nations can and must do better than this, says David Clark. 

2016 was meant to be a year of firsts for the United Nations as it prepares to choose a new Secretary-General. Optimism was growing that the top job would go to a woman for the first time in the world body’s seventy-year history. There was an emerging consensus that it should be someone from Eastern Europe, the only region never to have held the post, provided a candidate of the right calibre was put forward. Above all, the selection was supposed to break new ground in openness and transparency after decades in which decisions were stitched up in private by a handful of the most powerful countries. Innovations like open nominations, public campaigning and candidates hustings were introduced in a bid to improve public scrutiny.
 
All of that now threatens to be turned on its head as the battle to succeed Ban Ki-moon becomes embroiled in intrigues and plots, according to stories that have surfaced in the Belgian and Portuguese media in the last week. Allegations centre on the activities of former European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, and ex-Portuguese MEP turned lobbyist, Mario David. Both are said to be promoting the undeclared candidacy of Kristalina Georgieva, the serving European Commission Vice-President from Bulgaria. Barroso reportedly arranged for Georgieva to participate in a recent meeting of the Bilderberg group in order to boost her profile with world leaders. David is said to be touring the capitals of Eastern Europe to canvas support.
 
While there is nothing necessarily unusual about senior European politicians supporting a colleague in her bid for a major international job, there are two things that make this case very different. The first is that Bulgaria already has an official candidate in the person of Irina Bokova, a career diplomat currently serving her second elected term as Director-General of UNESCO. Reports suggest that Barroso is among those pressing the Bulgarian government to switch its nomination to Georgieva, while David’s role has been to find another country in the region willing to nominate her in the event that Bulgaria refuses to budge. The second piece of the puzzle is that Portugal also has an official candidate – its former Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres – who Barroso still publicly insists he is supporting.
 
It is in the nature of the way these matters are often decided that there is no necessary contradiction between these facts. Georgieva’s candidacy would appear to stand no real chance of success. She lacks diplomatic experience and news reports suggest that the Bulgarian Prime Minister’s decision not to support her was based on information linking her to the communist-era intelligence services. And while there is nothing to stop another country nominating her, precedent suggests that a lack of domestic support will be fatal to her chances. Georgieva is highly unlikely to end up as UN Secretary-General, yet she could still have a significant role to play as a spoiler. Bulgaria’s official candidate, Irina Bokova, is frequently described as the frontrunner. As a woman from Eastern Europe with heavyweight UN experience, she certainly has an edge. A rival Bulgarian woman candidate would create doubt about the strength of her support and potentially open the way for other candidates. The aspirants who stand to benefit most are men from outside Eastern Europe. Step forward Antonio Guterres.
 
Those with the best chance of preventing these manoeuvres from succeeding are the governments of Eastern Europe. Although the principle of rotation does not confer on them the automatic right to have one of their own chosen to run the UN, a degree of unity and professionalism in the way they approach the contest would make their claim much harder to resist. Unfortunately there has so far been little evidence of the kind of collective solidarity and diplomatic co-ordination that helped to deliver the top UN job to Africa and Asia in the past. The strongest advocate for Eastern Europe is currently Russia, although it has stopped short of threatening to use its veto in the way that China was prepared to do for Asia when Ban Ki-moon was appointed in 2006.
 
In addition to casting doubt on Eastern Europe’s chances, the descent into private plotting is an ominous warning to those campaigning for the UN to become more open and representative – the appointment of a new Secretary-General may not prove to be the turning point they had hoped for. What is the point of public hustings for candidates when the real discussions are taking place at a closed meeting of Bilderberg group? Why bother to encourage women candidates to put forward their names when the power brokers of international diplomacy already have their man? Seventy years after it was established, the UN should have found a better way to do this. It still can.

David Clark was Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001.