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Fatwas and Feminism: Women, Religious Authority, and Islamic TV

Soad Saleh, one of the world’s leading female scholars of Islam, fields requests for religious advice each week from callers across the Arab world. Seated at a gilded table on the set of her Egyptian satellite TV show, Women’s Fatwa, Saleh provides religious rulings on a wide range of subjects. How many months can a man be away from his wife if he is working in another country? Under what conditions is polygamy acceptable? How can a financial dispute between sisters be settled?

During one episode in late March, a young Egyptian woman named May called in. Six months ago, when she married her husband, he promised she could continue working as an engineer. Now he is insisting she stay at home. He has even locked her in the house while he is at work to prevent her from leaving. She doesn’t want a divorce, because she fears people will blame her. What should she do?

Saleh paused briefly, looking traditional but stylish in her periwinkle hijab, or headscarf, and simple rimless eyeglasses. “You probably agreed to marry this man because he is committed to his house and responsibilities,” she said.

“Yes,” May said.

“Being committed, according to Islam, does not mean you pray in the mosque and then oppress your wife at home. Being committed means that you follow Allah’s rules in managing your relations with people,” Saleh said. But she does not urge May to leave her husband, instead urging her to be patient. “You have to wait until you deliver your children,” she said, “and then, God willing, you will get busy raising your babies.”

Saleh and her call-in show are part of a growing phenomenon on Arab satellite television and within Islam itself—the virtual mosque for women. Along with Saleh, an increasingly diverse group of preachers and Islamic scholars focusing on women’s issues are taking to the airwaves. The new sheikhas include fashionable former actresses and singers who have quit their old careers and now host programs that promote Islam. They also include other formally trained religious scholars like soft-spoken Abla Al Kahlawy, Saleh’s colleague at Al Azhar, who is known for her discussions of emotions and romance.

On the region’s first Islamic satellite channel, Iqra, launched in 1998 by Jeddah-based Arabic Television and Radio (ART), female preacher Neveen El Guindy interacts with callers on her showKadaya Al Maraa (Women’s Issues). Hostess Doa’a Amer elaborates on the rights of women in Islam on Magalet Al Maraa (Women’s Magazine). Egypt’s secular Dream TV frequently invites Al Kahlawy to appear on one of its religous shows becuase, says Amr Khafagah, the station’s programming director, she has become a star, able to attract audiences. And Saudi billionaire Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal’s new Islamic satellite channel, Al Resalah, which debuted March 1, has four programs hosted by women. These shows are attracting more viewers than the rest of the station’s offerings combined, in part because 60 percent of the station’s viewers are female, said Ahmed Abu Haiba, head of Al Resalah ’s programming in Egypt.

The growth of women’s programming is part of the exponential growth of Islamic religious programming in the Arab world. On Iqra Channel, the main draw has long been Muslim television preacher Amr Khaled, a 38-year-old former accountant whose preaching has inspired thousands of young women to take the veil. Al Huda (The Right Path) is a new English-language Islamic station targeting Western audiences. Like most of the religious channels, including Iqra and Al Resalah , Al Huda is funded by Saudi investors.

Mainstream satellite broadcasters are taking their cue from the popularity of such programs on Islamic TV stations. Leading secular channels MBC, Future TV and Dubai TV have all added regular series about Islam to their schedules in the last few years, to great success. Variety reported in April that MBC’s show about Islam, “Yalla Ya Shabab” (Hey Kids!) was one of this season’s top regional hits.

Stations go into women’s religious broadcasting for different reasons.Dream, for example is motivated by commercial interests, and a desire to meet the rising demand for religious shows in the increasingly religious Middle East. “It’s a social trend, not a religious trend. It’s something like a mania, with fans and stars,” said Dream TV’s Khafaga. “There’s no difference between the behavior of the fans of Abla Al Khalawy and Amr Khaled and the fans of Amr Diab,” he said,comparing the two preachers to Egypt’s leading pop singers.“Just like it’s good for some people to say they were at a party with Amr Diab, they want to go to a lecture with Amr Khaled or Abla Al Khalawy.”

Soad Saleh’s show, which is aired on an Egyptian government-owned satellite station, demonstrates Al Azhar’s desire to compete with these new voices in the field of women’s religious programming. As the highest-ranking woman at Al Azhar, the world’s preeminent seat of Sunni Islamic learning, Saleh has appeared on terrestrial Egyptian state-run television programs since the early 1990s. Now, however, she is able to reach more viewers on her satellite TV show, which began broadcasting in January.

The Case of Soad Saleh: Islamic Feminism and Religious Authority

Saleh’s understanding of Islam comes from a lifetime of study. Born in Cairo in 1946, she was the second of nine children, and the oldest of the five girls. Her mother did not work out of the home, but her father, a religious scholar at Al Azhar, encouraged his daughters to pursue higher education. When Al Azhar opened a women’s faculty under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1962, Saleh’s father urged her to attend.

By the time she earned her master’s degree in 1972, Saleh was already arguing that Islam contained more rights for women than many Muslim women enjoy in practice. “God did not mean for men’s dominance over women to be absolute,” she said in a recent interview with TBS.

Saleh’s thesis focused on the Islamic right of men to divorce their wives unilaterally, a right that she argued often is interpreted too broadly. She reasoned that men should only be able to divorce their wives if “living together has become impossible.” She also argued that a husband cannot divorce his wife while she is menstruating, in part because sex is not permissible then, limiting the possibility of reconciliation. Her fatwa, or legal opinion on this matter, is now the official interpretation of Al Azhar and is preached in hundreds of mosques in Egypt.

Saleh does not seek to explain away Islamic rules that give men more rights than women in divorce, inheritance, and other matters. Instead, she seeks just treatment for women within the framework of these laws, because Islam is a religion of justice. Her goal is not to grant new rights to women, but rather, to restore to them the rights they enjoyed in early Islam. She describes herself as a feminist, though the term she uses is nashat islamiya, or female Islamic activist. “Feminism is not a Western term or idea. Islam called on women from the beginning to participate,” she says.

Saleh has given some advice that would make secular women’s rights activists shudder. A light beating of a wife who betrays a faithful and caring husband, she has argued, is preferable to divorce because it preserves the sanctity of the family. Her advice to May—to stick to an abusive marriage for the sake of future children—seems to Western ears particularly harsh. Her brand of feminism is separate from, and in some ways at odds with, feminism as generally understood by secular activists. Saleh and other Islamic feminists do not seek exact equality under the law for men and women, because they believe God, as revealed in the Quran and other holy texts, gave the sexes specific strengths and weaknesses.

But Saleh’s program is also challenging long-standing Islamic orthodoxy—even by the mere fact of its existence. The right of women to issue fatwa, or Islamic legal opinions, remains controversial, but that hasn’t stopped Saleh or others like her. “Whether women can issue fatwas is a big issue all over the Muslim world,” says Clark Lombardi, an expert on Islamic law at the University of Washington. “I think the tide is definitely with the women-can-do-it faction, but who knows how long it will take for the war to be over.”

Saleh has tried to gain official status as a female mufti in Egypt, applying to Egypt’s Grand Mufti to make her the nation’s deputy mufti for women’s affairs in the nation’s highest religious council the Dar al-Ifta. Eight years after she submitted her request, she has still not heard back. Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa still questions women’s readiness for the role. “Today, there is not even one female sheikha to take information from,” he said in Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Youm April 8.

But Saleh argues that while it is extremely difficult for a woman to gain the experience needed to issue fatwas, it is possible. “She must know the Quran, the Sunna (traditions of the Prophet Mohammed) and Islamic law, and mustn’t be fanatic about a certain right. She must adopt a moderate attitude; Islam calls for this,” she says. For this reason, Saleh believes that only “one, maybe two” women in Egypt are qualified to give Islamic rulings: herself and colleague Al Kahlawy. Former actresses who have become veiled “can only discuss general subjects, like the biography of the prophet, and ethics in Islam,” Saleh asserts. Even Amr Khaled, who may well have more influence over Egyptian society and religious practice today than any Al Azhar trained scholar, “can only play a limited role,” because of his lack of formal religious training, she argues.

But a glance at today’s Islamic satellite programming raises the question of whether the distinction Saleh holds to between preaching and fatwa is shrinking. Religious advice from Amr Khaled, veiled former pop stars, and other lay preachers may not hold any legal weight in Islam, but if it is followed by thousands of people, does it matter?

“Many Islamic modernists who cannot be considered licensed scholars by any classical standards have begun to opine on questions of Islamic law in a way that their fans see as authoritative,” Lombardi says. Increasingly, he says, authoritative advice in Islam is “any opinion that a critical mass of Muslims think is authoritative.”

The Media and its Messengers

Across town from Al Azhar is the shining new office of the new satellite channel Al Resalah. The channel’s Egyptian executive Ahmed Abu Haiba, 37, says his channel offers an alternative vision for women’s religious programming. The original producer of Amr Khaled’s first television program, Abu Haiba is helping to develop modern Islamic television’s sleek, contemporary style. His shows on Al Resalah look as if they are set in trendy urban cafes or upscale living rooms. He’s experimenting with new, edgier camera techniques, such as panning the set from a low angle, or framing the guests from a ceiling-mounted lens.

Al Resalah is trying to be the Arab world’s first Islamic variety channel. Along with the traditional prayer calls and live shots from Mecca that are fixtures on most Islamic stations, it also features original cartoons for children with Islamic themes, game shows which test Islamic knowledge, videos by modern Muslim rock stars who sing about their love for their religion, and Islamic women’s programming. On Al Resalah, a modern Islamic religious woman is portrayed as observant, stylish, and welcome to work outside of the home—so long as she remembers that her most important role is with her family.

The channel is trying to attract viewers with its message that Islam “can be implemented in all aspects of life,” Abu Haiba told TBS. “Islamic television doesn’t have to lecture. It doesn’t have to be dull. It is not so difficult to implement Islam in life—we are trying to deliver this message in the simplest, brightest way possible. This is coming from our point of view toward our lives,” he says. To this end, Al Resalah’s shows feature fancy sets, high production values and big-name stars.

Abu Haiba’s other love is playwriting, and it is with a sense for the dramatic that he has developed the station’s four shows hosted by women. These programs, he says, “are the most important programs we have, and the most popular.” They combine religious discussion with the glamour of expensive sets and a variety of formats, like many Western talk shows. Instead of showing the static image of one woman offering fatwas to anonymous callers, they seek to offer advice in a less formal, chattier way.

Hor Al Dunia, whose literal translation is “Celestial Virgins in the Real World,” is one such program. It’s hosted by Mona Abdel-Ghani, a beautiful former actress and singer who quit her career in 1998 after her brother, who had always urged her to become more religious, died suddenly of a heart attack. “In the past, everything I did was meant to bring me more fame and money; today, whatever I do is intended to please God,” she told the Egypt’s state-run English-language paper, Al Ahram Weekly, in 2002.

Abdel-Ghani opens each show perched on a low white chair in what looks like the central seating area of a chic duplex. The walls are painted red, with chrome shelves and finishes; sculptured white vases adorn the glass tables. Her stylish headscarf is always wrapped a slightly different way and matches her outfit perfectly. On one recent episode, fur pom-poms dangled from her hijab’s edges.

Abdel Ghani first welcomes to the set a celebrity, either male or female, to discuss a social topic related to women’s lives. On one episode in mid-March, former actor Mohammed al-Gindi, who now wears all white and preaches about Islam, discussed the rules of divorce. Abdel Ghani guides the conversation, nodding and agreeing, much like a gracious host at a fancy dinner party. “We always have to turn back to the Prophet Mohammed’s way in dealing with problems,” she says sympathetically, responding to al-Gindi’s advice to reconcile marriages if at all possible. 

In the show’s second segment, regular people on the street in Egypt, Syria, and Morocco are interviewed about their opinions on divorce. Next, Abdel Ghani—who is going through her own, well-publicized divorce at the moment—interviews a journalist about his experience moderating a support group for divorced woman. In the last segment of the show, a sheikh comes out to resolve all the issues that have been raised from an Islamic perspective. Sometimes, the Islamic expert is a young sheikha, but usually it is a man.

Al Resalah ’s other women’s shows follow related formats. On Talit Al Amar (Moonrise) former actress Sabreen struggles to keep control of a Crossfire-like panel discussion on a controversial topic of interest to women, such as polygamy, domestic violence, rape, or abortion. Islamic advice is pitted against comments from psychologists and other laymen. In a second segment, Sabreen, her face framed by her voluminous, sequined black abaya, interviews a “role model” about his or her life and views on Islam. To close each show, Sabreen hosts an inventor who is participating in a 100,000 riel ($26,660) competition sponsored by Prince Al Waleed for the best invention in the Arab world. The segment does not relate to the rest of the show: on one recent episode, an engineer in a plaid shirt showed off a contraption that explodes kidney stones inside the body with a gust of air.

Slightly more traditional in tone is Albi Maak (My Heart is With You), on which older scholar Al Kahlawy offers romantic advice from a café like stage set, with coffee brown walls, lit candles and soft music. She starts each show by answering a phone call from a woman with a controversial problem. On one episode, a woman sought advice after finding out her daughter’s husband was gay; on another, a woman discovered her 60-year-old husband had taken a mistress. In a second segment, she answers seven or eight questions sent to her in emails. For the finale of each show, a woman appears on the set, dramatically back lit so that only her silhouette is visible. In a live interview, Al Kahlawy coaches her through her questions about divorce, plastic surgery, or other concerns.

Abu Haiba and Resala’s other founders say they are using the tools of modern media and celebrity to attract people to Islam. In doing so, they are trying to be more appealing to audiences than Saleh’s simple Egyptian satellite channel production. It remains to be seen, however, how much style will count when it comes to determining how modern Islamic women choose to practice their religion.

In the final analysis, Saleh’s program and the sleek women’s shows on Resalah may have more similarities than differences. Both convert the practice of Islamic advice-giving into rushed moments and sound bytes. The shows provide guidance without context, and callers gain none of the sense of personal connection they could get in taking to a local religious authority. Yet the shows also assert an important role for women in the burgeoning field of Islamic religious programming. The desirability of female audiences—as well as the desire to influence female opinion on Islamic practice—is encouraging Islamic channels to have programs hosted by and catering to women. What women sheikhas are saying about Islam on television is becoming important, not because their opinions have been certified by a mufti, but because viewers are paying attention.

About Sharon Otterman

Sharon Otterman is a Fulbright researcher and journalist in Cairo writing about women and political reform. From 2003 to 2005, she worked as staff writer and associate director at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. In 2002, she was a congressional correspondent in Washington for United Press International. Ms. Otterman holds an M.A. in International Affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in Philosophy from Yale University. She has also lived and worked in China, Kosovo, and Slovakia.

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