Muslim Women Go Public

Last week, the United Arab Emirates appointed its first female marriage registrar, Fatima Saeed Obeid al-Awani. It’s the first country in the Arabian Peninsula to do so.

This follows Egypt’s decision to appoint Amal Suleiman to the same position a few months ago. India also saw a woman preside over marriages as early as last August.

Al-Awani’s appointment and those like it look to be following a wider trend of women playing a more public role in religion. While women have always played a large role in religion by leading halaqas and organizing pilgrimages, these have traditionally been mostly female gatherings that were not highly visible to the public.

But within the last several years, more women have been stepping (whether willingly or not) into the spotlight:

• Morocco trained its first fifty female preachers (mourchidat) in April of 2008; they were introduced to counsel women and broker a “more moderate Islam” by King Mohammed V. Morocco sent many of these preachers to Europe for Ramadan, and the news of their recruitment, training, and graduating was covered in worldwide outlets.

• Dr. Amina Wadud garnered worldwide media attention for her leading Muslim prayer in the U.S. and Britain. Other Muslim women have led mixed-gender prayers and also lead khutbahs in several different countries (or sermons).

• Laleh Bakhtiar’s 2007 English translation of the Qur’an gained attention and criticism throughout the world, particularly for her translation of the sura that is usually used to sanction domestic violence.

• Lily Munir teaches a gender-empowering interpretation of the Qur’an to girls in Indonesian religious schools. In Syria, the Qubaisiat (Islamic women’s society) has presided over opening several new Islamic schools for girls and women.

• Many Muslim women in South Asia have pushed their way into male-dominated areas, working to create a women-only mosque in Tamil Nadu, conducting marriages, and forming jamats (communities of traditionally-male elders that arbitrate on family matters).

The 1970s brought about what is referred to as an “Islamic revival” in many predominately Muslim countries. The increased involvement of women in public religious roles seems to be a natural progression from increasing faith in women’s personal lives. And with Islam being used to justify everything from foreign relations to family laws, it’s no wonder that women are becoming more involved in the system that has often been used against them.

All of these women have met with both support and controversy (just look at the comments under the articles). But they and others like them march on, determined to carve out a place for women in traditionally male-dominated religious roles.