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
Show Hide image

Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.