Gender Politics – ISNA’s First Female President

The recent election of Ingrid Mattson to the presidency of the Islamic Society of North America was received with great enthusiasm by the North American Muslim community and the public at large. Her election was seen as a sign of maturation , and as a vindication of Islam’s respect of women’s rights and contemporary Muslims’ ability to overcome cultural traditions and rise to the level of the high moral demands of Islam.

Yet some Muslims in North America, and many in Muslim societies, raised questions as to the propriety of a female presiding over the largest Muslim organization in North America, and as to the compatibility of female leadership with Islamic principles and precepts. As one of the skeptics about the position taken by the Islamic Society of North America put it: “Why ISNA is violating [the] Sunnah and clear guidelines in Islam? Is that ISNA now being influenced by [a] local version of Islam?”

Those who resist the notion of women leadership in the name of Islam base their position on historical arguments made by early Muslim jurists. Yet a fair examination of early Muslim scholarship and Islamic sources reveals a variety of positions with regards to the public rights and duties of women. While Ibn Jarir al-Tabari places no limitations on women’s right to assume the post of judge in all legal matters, al-Mawardi contends that women cannot be allowed to serve as judges under any circumstances. In between stands Abu Hanifa who allows women to serve as judges but only in cases involving commercial deals.

Historical Islamic jurisprudence, while recognizing the capacity of women to enjoy certain civil and political liberties, managed, nonetheless, to curtail these liberties on social and rational grounds. The degree of limitation on the exercise of civil and political rights also varied across historical periods and legal schools.

When approaching Islamic sources to shed light on the issue of women’s rights, a clear distinction emerges between the rights of women in the public sphere, and their rights in the area of family law. For while Islamic sources differentiate men’s and women’s responsibilities within the family, all limitations on women’s rights imposed by early jurists in the public sphere were based on either historically-bound interpretations of Islamic texts, or practical limitations associated with the social and political structures of historical society.

The Qur’an is unequivocal in assigning equal responsibilities for men and women for maintaining public order: “The believers, men and women, are protectors one of another; they enjoin the right (ma’ruf) and forbid the intolerable (munkar); they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey God and His Messenger.” (Qur’an 9:71). Since men and women are entrusted with the same public responsibility to enjoin the right and forbid the intolerable, one should expect that both would enjoy equal political rights. Yet it is obvious that classical jurists deny women political equality with men. The question therefore arises as to what is the basis of the classical position?

Jurists who deny women the right to public office base their arguments on one Qur’anic and one prophetic statement. The Qur’anic statement reads: “Men are the protectors (qawwamun) of women, because God has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because men support women from their means.” (4: 34) The word qawwamun which connotes “support” and “protection” has come to signify authority as well. The fact that qawwamun also signifies authority is not difficult to see as the remainder of the above Qur’anic statement empowers men with the right to discipline women guilty of mischief. But can the above verse be used to deny women access to public office?

The answer is an emphatic no. For the authority implied by qawwamun and the obedience it entails is relevant –” even under classical interpretation –” within the confines of the family. It is clear that the Qur’an does not intend to give authority to every single man over every single woman. Nor do those who extend the implication of this verse to the public sphere expect that any single woman in society should obey any single man. If this is the case, no one can invoke the notion of qawwamun to deny women access to public office.

The other textual evidence used by classical jurists, and continues to be held by contemporary traditionalist jurists, is in the form of a hadith text that states: “They shall never succeed those who entrust their affairs to a woman.” Reportedly the statement is a comment made by the Prophet upon hearing the news of the accession of Buran, the daughter of King Anusherawan, to the Persian throne after the passing away of her father. I wish to argue here that there are sufficient reasons to show that the above hadith does not stand in the face of a close scrutiny, and cannot, hence, be allowed to undermine the principle of moral and political equality between the sexes, which is firmly established in the Qur’anic texts.

The following issues must be recalled when interpreting the above hadith: (1) The hadith statement is not given in the form of a directive, but an opinion that has to be understood in its historical and cultural context. That is, the hadith has to be interpreted in the context of a historical society where women were not active participants in political life, and in the context of a political culture that places the hereditary rule over the principle of merit in deciding political succession. (2) The hadith is a single statement that has no support in the most authoritative Islamic source –” i.e. the Qur’an. (3) The hadith stands in a direct contradiction with the principle of moral and political equality of the sexes, a principle established by numerous Qur’anic verses. (4) Finally, the hadith, being a singular narration (khabar ahad), is of a lesser degree of certainty than the Qur’anic narration (khabar mutawatar), and hence cannot overrule principles established in the Qur’an.

The issue of women leadership is influenced more by cultural, rather than religious, traditions, and hence boils down to rational arguments on psychological differences between the two genders, as well as the impact of full participation of women in public life on the family. The critics of women’s participation in leadership functions are fully entitled to express their misgivings with regard to women leadership, but then they should respect the public choice when it supports female leaders. The critics are not, however, entitled to elevate their misgivings and literalist interpretations to the level formal requirements.

The objection to the election of the first female president of the Islamic Society of North America is borne out of serious confusion: the Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be with him, questioned the wisdom of appointing an inexperienced women to a leadership position because she happened to be the king’s daughter; the Islamic society of North America elected an experienced Muslim leader, with a long track record in leadership and public service.