Egypt will never be free, fair or home to human dignity —the main fruits of the revolution by the magnificent people of Egypt —unless the law and innate beliefs champion human rights for everyone in the country. This is especially true of civic and political rights for all citizens, most importantly the right to nominate and elect and hold public office without discrimination based on gender or faith.
Unfortunately, I was the target of a vicious campaign of criticism and slander by those who commented on my interview in Al-Masri Al-Youmon 4 March 2011, just because I expressed my support for the nomination of a female to the post of president of Egypt and found it an important topic of discussion. Rising above the vulgar arguments some commentators based on the rationale of “God forgive my people”, the beauty of Islamic Shariaa is that its rules are open to interpretation, which is why there is a distinction between Shariaa and jurisprudence. Second, as any scholar would tell you, human interpretation is fallible or can be influenced by motive and preference, and that there is enlightened and narrow-minded jurisprudence. In fact, the least knowledgeable are the quickest to judge.
I believe that Arab Islamic culture, in terms of the overall goals of Islamic Sharia and enlightened jurisprudence, is not a major obstacle to a renaissance built on freedom, knowledge and lifting the stature of women. The main obstacle is the use of oppression and backwardness for narrow-minded interpretations in Arab Islamic cultures, to reproduce the hegemony of the few in control of tyrannical regimes. Also, curtailing the manufacture and distribution of knowledge and denying women their human rights and rights as full citizens. This augments the state of desolation and wretchedness under which we were living until the dawn of the magnificent popular revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Hopefully, they will be followed by Libya and Yemen soon, to form a regional base of liberation for the Arab nation made up of states liberated from authoritarian regimes.
The simple-minded are usually the ones who are confused about the difference between religious guidance and general governance; the former is religious and the latter is civic. Overall, governance in Islam —especially for Sunnis —is civic rather than religious. There are jurisprudence opinions that affirm all the rights of citizenship for women, in terms of voting, nomination and holding public office. Today’s sensibility demands respect for human rights and favours these enlightened interpretations over extremist ones that ban women from power.
I begin by agreeing with Fahmy Howeidy, who said that despite the fact that equality between men and women is a principle of Islamic law, this issue has not been paid enough attention, especially by the uninformed. There is confusion about what is obligatory and what is open for interpretation that allows multiple readings and options; what are God’s teachings, what are traditions or social norms; which Sharia text is used as a referee or evidence, and which is just theory and history to pick and choose from.
It seems that the majority of those who objected to what I said in Al-Masri Al-Youmare extremists with partial understanding of religion. There are prominent religious scholars who confirm equality between men and women in Islam, especially their right to hold public office, in the hope that their opinions would eventually influence the extremists. Youssef Al-Qaradawi asserts that Islam elevates the stature and dignity of women as a daughter, wife, mother and partner in society, and most importantly as a human being. Women have the same obligations as men towards God, and are rewarded or punished equally. God’s first directives were given to both a man and woman when they lived in heaven, by saying: “eat therefrom in [ease and] abundance from wherever you will. But do not approach this tree, lest you be among the wrongdoers.” (Surat Al-Baqara: Verse 35). The Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) said: “Women are the other half of men.”
Sheikh Mohamed Al-Ghazali criticises devious religious interpretations on the issue of women by saying: “Muslims have deviated from the teachings of their religion in dealing with women, propagating unjust tales and subjective or inaccurate hadiths, which have placed Muslim women in bleak ignorance without knowledge of religion or the world. This makes tradition prevalent and is not the path of righteousness.”
Meanwhile, Abdel-Halim Mohamed Abu Shaqa confirms the right of women to vote, nominate themselves and oversee government. The fundamentalist rule states: “Permission is the foundation as long as there are no prohibitions on the right of women to vote and nominate themselves; we believe this is a legitimate right on principle.”
The opinion of the late Mustafa El-Sebaie, which is also the opinion of Sharia specialists who discussed the position of Sharia concerning a woman’s right to vote and nominate herself, argued: “After long discussions and reviewing all points of view, we believe that Islam does not deny her that right. Voting is the choice of the nation for representatives on matters of legislation and overseeing the government. Women in Islam are not banned from delegating someone to defend her rights and express her opinion as a member of society. There is nothing in Islam that prohibits women from becoming legislators because nomination, first and foremost, requires knowledge of society’s needs and requirements.
“Islam gives an equal right to knowledge for both men and women; throughout our history, there have been many female scholars of hadith, jurisprudence and literature, and others. As regarding oversight of the executive power, it is essentially to demand good conduct and avert wrongdoing; and on this, both men and women are equal in the view of Islam. God says: ‘The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong.’ Accordingly, there is no clear text in Islam that denies women the right to serve in public office in legislation or oversight.”
The distinguished scholar of contemporary Islamic thought, Mohamed Mahdi Shamseddin, sees no obstacle preventing women from holding senior posts: “By looking at the evidence, we believe —and Almighty God knows the truth of his rulings —that consensus among scholars that it is illegitimate for women to hold power is not based on reasonable evidence.”
After citing enlightened views, I would like to end this article by stating that recent physiological tests of the human brain have proven that the capabilities of the female brain are higher than males on average, which is not surprising. Also, female students are more advanced than their male peers in all levels of education in Arab countries. Even more incredible, is that they are able to achieve this despite the obtrusive social environment (that caused me to write this article) that denies them many of their rights, and despite backward calls and partial understandings of Islam, which are neither compatible with this era of freedom nor with Islam.
What would happen to Arab societies if women enjoyed all their rights, especially political and civic rights, without restrictions? If this were to happen, I believe, Arab states would progress forward in leaps and bounds in human development, which would result in a long-awaited renaissance in this part of the world.
The writer is head of Almishkat Centre for Research and Training in Cairo and the lead author of the 2002-2005 reports on Arab Human Development of the United Nations.