Nadia Yassine

RABAT, Morocco (WOMENSENEWS)–In a nation that has outpaced its neighbors in liberalizing Sharia family laws, two female scholars in Morocco–Latifa Jbabdi and Nadia Yassine–are swaying the religious debate about women’s role in Islam.

Despite their firm belief that women have a role in that debate, however, there may be little else they can agree on.

Jbabdi is an ex-Marxist and has fought for women’s rights in Morocco for a quarter century. Yassine is the daughter of the founder of the Justice and Charity Group, a banned Islamist organization that seeks to establish an Islamic state governed by Islamic Sharia.

While Jbabdi presses for a secular future, Yassine sees the world ahead in religious terms.

How Progressives Look at Women in the Koran

Theirs is a debate that is occurring throughout the Islamic world, between religious conservatives and Islamists on one side, secularists and those seeking an Islamic reformation on the other.

That debate is thriving in Morocco, where the young King Mohammed VI has, more than any other Arab ruler, taken concrete steps towards democracy since assuming the throne in 1999.

Increasingly, women are moving to the forefront of this discourse.

As became apparent last month in Saudi Arabia–when a group of Saudi women gave U.S. Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes a tongue-lashing–not all women living in Islamic states share the West’s view of women’s freedom.

In their own ways, however, women in the region are taking more control of a debate that vitally affects them.

Secularist women are educating themselves in Islam, and challenging the religious status-quo about what the Koran does and doesn’t say about women. And conservative Islamist women are starting to penetrate official male bastions such as Al-Azhar University in Egypt, and popular grassroots organizations like Yassine’s.

For years Muslim activists such as Jbabdi waged their battles with ideological help from Western pioneers such as Betty Friedan and later with international accords like the 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Relying on foreign points of reference such as these, however, they made little progress. The international language of gender equality exerted little sway over their traditional, religious societies.

“A religious fundamentalism began to confront us, calling us infidels, and we wondered, how is this possible?” said Jbabdi, from the headquarters of the Union of Feminine Action in Rabat, the organization she founded in 1983. “We started asking, is Islam truly against the rights of women?”

Latifa Jbabdi Turns to Koran

Jbabdi and her colleagues decided to find out. They took classes and held dozens of study sessions. Today, women such as Jbabdi are abandoning their secular approach, immersing themselves in the Koran and the hadith–the principle sources of Islamic law–and proffering their own interpretations of Islam.

A chain-smoking firebrand, Jbabdi served three years in prison for her leftist political activities in the late 1970s. She wears a pacemaker to this day as a result of the torture and mistreatment she endured in jail. But today the one-time radical leftist peppers her argument with Koranic verses and quotes early Islamic lawmakers with the ease of a learned sheikh.

“We undertook a sort of repossession of our Islamic heritage, and read the texts from a feminist perspective,” she said. “We found that there were many verses that stress equality, and we discovered that Islamic Sharia is not based on ready-made judgments, but rather it is based on a set of guiding principals and ijtihad,” that is, Koranic interpretations.

Morocco’s women’s rights advocates scored a major victory in the summer of 2003, when Parliament approved a new family law granting women equal rights in marriage and divorce. Activists say it is the most pro-woman law in the Arab world.

For years Islamists opposed any change to the family law, on the grounds that the old family law was based on Sharia and Sharia was sacred. Well versed in these issues, Jbabdi helped lead a campaign to convince Moroccans that the new law did not contradict Islam. She succeeded and Islamic politicians voted unanimously on her side.

Yassine Is Female Islamist Face

Just outside the city, in the suburb of Sale, Nadia Yassine lives in a modest third floor walk-up apartment. Yassine has emerged as the face of the Justice and Charity Group, the banned but tolerated Islamic opposition organization founded by her father, Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine.

Yassine is a rare woman at the forefront of a conservative Islamist organization. Militants have threatened her life and called her an infidel “because I am talking and I am a woman,” she said during an interview with Women’s eNews in her home.

Jbabdi has also criticized her harshly, saying she promotes an ideology that fosters terror and that she wants to install a theocracy that would make the country resemble Iran.

Nonetheless, many here say that Yassine’s early support for the new family law convinced the Moroccan king that he could safely push the proposal without facing a united and powerful Islamic opposition.

“We see that we can’t build a society and a future unless the woman participates completely and at all levels,” she said, emphasizing the “all.”

Saleh Makes Mark at Traditional School

Women have begun to make their mark on Islamic thought at more traditional religious institutions as well. Among them, one of the most influential is Soad Saleh, an Egyptian who heads the Women’s School for Arabic and Islamic studies and who belongs to the International Union for Muslim Ulama, or scholars.

Saleh is also one of a smattering of women slowly rising up the ranks at Egypt’s 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar University, the Islamic world’s most prestigious institution of learning.

Saleh has taken stances that make many women’s rights activists shudder. A light beating of a wife who betrays a faithful and caring husband, she argues, is preferable to divorce because it preserves the sanctity of the family.

At the same time she is challenging the male-dominated world of Islamic jurisprudence at Sunni Islam’s most venerated institution.

She has twice applied to Al-Azhar’s powerful all-male Islamic Research Council, which determines Islam’s position on issues such as cloning, DNA testing in paternity suits and divorce law. She was rejected both times, but her efforts prompted a wide-ranging discussion in the Egyptian media over the role of women at Al-Azhar.

“I am among the most learned scholars in Al-Azhar University and I have all the degrees that any man has,” Saleh says, matter of factly, without a hint of resentment. Decked out in a colorful turquoise head scarf and flashy oversized rings, Saleh is content that change is occurring, even if it appears painfully slow at times.

“From where I am, a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush,” she says. “Men call me all the time and ask for my opinion on a matter, and I say to them, ‘Go to the Islamic Research Council’ and they say, ‘No, we want your opinion.’ I don’t need to cause problems with anyone. I’m traveling the world issuing rulings on Sharia. I don’t need to be an official member of their boys’ club. I have the trust of the people and that is better than the trust of the official establishment.”

Charles Levinson is the news editor for Cairo Magazine and a freelance journalist. His articles have appeared in the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor, the Dallas Morning News, the Guardian and elsewhere.