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Women’s Rights and Privileges

I was not surprised by the recent statements made by the grand imam of Al-Azhar on his Facebook page about women’s rights. In his post, Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed El-Tayeb outlined women’s equal rights in various realms, including employment, marriage, and inheritance. The sheikh of Al-Azhar declared that a woman has the right to travel without a male guardian when it is safe to travel and by means of travel that do not expose her to danger. When asked about the hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad, may God’s prayers and peace be upon him, said that it is impermissible for a woman who believes in God to embark on a journey on her own, the grand imam explained that the conditions of the modern era cannot be equated to the conditions that prevailed when these rulings were first made, when it was unsafe for women to travel. Then the sheikh of Al-Azhar also emphasized the right of women to assume any professional position that suits them, including in the judicial field. He also condemned arbitrary divorce and protected a woman’s right to choose her spouse, as long as that spouse can sufficiently provide for her. It is curious that the grand imam has now come out against a strict reading of hadiths and proposed a more lax interpretation of the prophet’s sayings. I wonder what the sheikh would say about his very own statement from just a year ago, in which he permitted the use of physical violence to discipline women. At that time, I responded to the sheikh’s statement in an article titled “Who said God commanded the beating of women?” There, I laid out how the verdict stood in contradiction to the linguistic interpretation of the Quran, which opposes this kind of behavior. But at that time, the idea of giving religious texts a modern interpretation – and surely the idea of shying away from hadiths – seemed totally unfathomable. Today, things have changed. The grand imam’s post is not entirely surprising, given the fact that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, just recently appeared on television and spoke of moderation in the application and interpretation of Islamic laws. During his interview, the crown prince emphasized the importance of interpreting the Quran in ways that meet today’s world, eliminating the historic reliance on many hadiths. –Nashwa Al-Hawfa (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)