In Saudi Arabia, some women have exploited sex segregation to assume positions as religious leaders. However, their role remains ambiguous: on the one hand, they guarantee a female presence in the public space; on the other, they are spokespersons for the Wahhabi establishment.
Last update: 2022-04-22 10:03:03
In Saudi Arabia, women are traditionally excluded from the public sphere. But some of them have been able to exploit gender segregation to their advantage to assume positions of religious leadership. Active since the 1990s, women preachers have acquired greater visibility with the spread of modern technology. But their role remains ambiguous, because while they guarantee a female presence in the public space, they act as spokespeople for the Wahhabi establishment.
In Islam, religious authority is traditionally a male prerogative. This phenomenon is particularly marked in more patriarchal societies, such as in the case of Saudi Arabia where, historically, women have seen their exclusion from the religious, political and social space. In the specific case, the reasons for this exclusion are to be attributed to the influence of Wahhabi doctrine, which sets out gender roles in quite a clear manner and ratifies the segregation of the sexes owing to a very rigid interpretation of the notion of ‘awra or “area of modesty.”[i] The woman’s whole body is ‘awra, and according to some interpretations, so is the female voice. For some scholars, however, the impositions of Wahhabi doctrine are not sufficient to explain the absence of female protagonists in the public space. Instead, what should be taken into consideration is the politics/religion pairing which has contributed to the birth of a religious nationalism, that is, “a politicised religious tradition serving as an umbrella to construct a homogeneous nation out of a fragmented, diverse, and plural Arabian society.”[ii]
However, these limits have not prevented Saudi women from creating spaces and religious leadership opportunities for themselves. Saudi Arabia too, like other Arab countries, has known women religious preachers since the 1990s (dā‘iyāt) as an effect of the process of female education which began in the 1970s.
From Schools to the Web
The beginning of female education in Saudi Arabia remains a controversial question. Some credit King Faisal with it, others his brother, King Saud. What is certain is that in 1960, a royal decree attributed to King Saud laid down the opening of the first school for girls:
In consultation with religious scholars, orders are given to establish schools to educate girls in religious matters (Quran, Creed and Fiqh), and other sciences that are accepted in our religious tradition such as house management, bringing up children and disciplining them. We gave orders to set up a committee, haya, consisting of ulama of high rank who jealously guard religion, to supervise the matter under the guidance of sheikh Muhammad Ibn Ibrahim.[iii]
At the time, this decree provoked much outcry, especially in some cities in the Najd region. In protest, the notables of the city of Burayda organized a march on Riyadh, which concluded with the guarantee by King Faisal that no one would be forced to send their daughters to school. These protests, contrary to what one may think, were not dictated so much by the conservatism for which the central region of Saudi Arabia is renowned, as by diffidence towards an educational system which could usurp the traditional one. Indeed, “imported” Arab professors were to teach in the new schools instead of the ulama and local mutawwi‘a, that is, the people tasked with ensuring observation of the religious rules. The native religious notables feared on one hand losing their prerogatives, and on the other looked upon the new arrivals with suspicion in the fear that they could corrupt the purity of the traditional Wahhabi teaching. Girls’ schools were considered particularly vulnerable and therefore more exposed to the danger of contamination. What was at stake was the maintenance of patriarchal control over young women.
The educational situation underwent a further evolution between the 1970s and 1980s when all the Islamic universities in the Kingdom started to open female sections, with the consequent increase over just a few years of the number of girls educated in the religious sciences. Initially, these institutions were organized and run by the Egyptian and Syrian Muslim Brothers who had emigrated to the kingdom owing to the persecution they were subject to in their countries, in collaboration with the Salafi establishment. The Wahhabi ulama kept watch over the doctrine programmes, while the Brothers were tasked with teaching modern Islamic knowledge. It is precisely in this context that the first women preachers received their instruction. As of the 1990s, the spaces of female education expanded further: women-only centres for memorizing the Qur’an were established, funded by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and women’s sectors were opened in some organizations, amongst which the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, linked to the Muslim World League.
The year 1999 marked a new turning point: it was the year when Saudi Arabia allowed its citizens to access the Internet. Without doubt, the diffusion of modern technologies has played a substantial role in the development of women’s religious activities. Internet became the easiest way to come into contact with other women, create spaces of free debate and avoid the obstacle of gender segregation, allowing the female and male universes to interact more easily. In the last twenty years, therefore, women’s participation in the religious sphere has gradually increased and women preachers have acquired more and more visibility. Today the leading female figures in religious preaching in Saudi Arabia are well-known professors of Islamic sciences at the Princess Nourah University in Riyadh—a women-only university founded in 1970, teachers in the Qur’an memorization centres, columnists in the most important national Saudi newspapers (Saudi Gazette, al-Madina, Arab News, Okaz), but they are also bloggers and social media savvies with thousands of followers, as is the case of Nawāl al-‘Īd, preacher with over four and a half million followers on Twitter and Ruqayya al-Muhārib with almost two million followers.
From the ideological point of view, it is quite difficult to collocate the Saudi women preachers: on one hand studies on the topic are still in an embryonic phase, and on the other the debate in Saudi Arabia on the role of women in society has ended up drawing up categories which the women in question do not identify with, used as they are by their detractors to defame them. For example, in 2014, Nawāl al-‘Īd herself threatened to sue those who accused her of being part of the ikhwānī movement, thus associating her with the Muslim Brotherhood.[iv] However, in general, the above-mentioned preachers fit into the Wahhabi tradition, support the Kingdom’s government system and do not intend to challenge the male religious authority but help perpetuate the traditional interpretations of Islam. In the academic literature, they are defined as “dā‘iyāt muthaqqafāt”[v] or intellectual preachers, in reference to their university education. These women are situated between the religious field and the intellectual one, they all have PhDs, and most of them teach at university. In addition to institutional commitments, they mainly dedicate themselves to da‘wa in female society, lead Qur’an study circles and, in some cases, manage their own religious/intellectual centres. One of these is Ithra’ al-Ma‘rifa, a pious endowment (waqf) opened in 2012 in Riyadh by Nawāl al-‘Īd. As one can read on the endowment’s official Twitter page,[vi] it proposes programmes aimed at fostering women’s cultural and social progress, and courses to memorize the Qur’an and preserve the Prophet’s legacy.
The preachers’ participation in public life is justified by the notion of ihtisāb, which refers to the Salafi principle of “commanding right and forbidding wrong” (al-amr bi-l ma‘rūf wa-l nahy ‘an al-munkar), and by da‘wa, that is, preaching. In this connection, it is interesting to note how these women preachers often refer to representatives of ultra-rigorist Islam such as Muhammad bin Sālih al-‘Uthaymīn (d. 2001) and Ibn Bāz (d. 1999), Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia from 1993 to 1999. The website Lahā Online, created by Ruqayya al-Muhārib, displays some excerpts from The Role of Women in the Reform of Society,[vii] a pamphlet just over 60 pages long written by al-‘Uthaymīn. The underlying thesis is that to reform society it is necessary to intervene on two levels: the manifest level which concerns the public life of people in the mosque, souks and other social places where me
n can have more of an impact; and the level hidden between the walls of the home, where instead women excel, as the Qur’an reminds: “Stay at home and do not flaunt your finery as they used to do in the pagan past” (33,33). Women—explains the author—have the power to reform half of society. Indeed, in numerical terms they make up half, if not more, of the collectivity, in addition to the fact that children spend the first years of their lives in their mothers’ arms. In order to be able to carry out this task, women must possess some qualities such as integrity (al-salāh), clarity and eloquence (al-bayān wa-l fasāha), wisdom (al-hikma) and a moral education (husn al-tarbiyya). Integrity is closely connected to acquiring knowledge, in particular of the sharia (‘ilm shar‘ī), which can be obtained from books or the ulama, whether they are men or women. The latter affirmation is particularly interesting because it also suggests that women can obtain the qualification of ‘ālim, religious scholar, traditionally reserved for men. Women—al-‘Uthaymīn explains—have to be a good example for children and give them an education based on Islamic ethics so that they too, as adults, can have a significant impact in reforming society.
Confirmation that women can have an active role in the field of da‘wa can also be found in a fatwa issued by Ibn Bāz, a cleric who was a point of reference for many women preachers in the 1980s and 1990s:
Women are permitted to take part in da‘wa according to their possibilities, and to command right and forbid wrong within the limits of their capacities. They can do it in their homes, in their towns, on the street, in the marketplace and in any place where it is possible to prohibit evil and call upon God with knowledge and good preaching, in observance […] of the law that God has established for them. They can also do it when travelling with their mahram, as ordered by the Qur’an: “The believers, both men and women, are allies of one another. They command right good, forbid wrong” (9,71).[viii]
Moreover, al-Muhārib declared that she had received from the sheikh Ibn Bāz in person the authority to issue fatwas, hence coming to fame with the title of muftiyya, generally reserved for men.[ix]
The “Great Lie”
The participation of women preachers in the public space, also with functions traditionally reserved for men, nevertheless does not imply a challenge against the established gender relations. Nawāl al-‘Īd took a stance on this topic in an article published on her website in 2012,[x] which reflects on the Islamic vision of equality (musāwā). Her idea is that the difference between men and women is at the very basis of the creation of human beings and it is the principle upon which everyone’s rights and duties are based. Starting from this assumption, any request for equality that does not take into account the original difference between male and female and the deriving capacities and needs, distances itself from justice (‘adl), the foundation of Islam and comes closer to injustice (zulm). In this sense, demands for equal rights for people who have different duties and prerogatives are a source of injustice: “Equality meant as eliminating all differences between men and women is not acceptable either at the scientific or at the practical level. Science and reality confirm that women are different from men in their image, physical appearance, chemical cellular composition, and that the two genders differ in their organic functions and psychological aspects. How can they be the same in their rights and duties?”
These considerations, explains Nawāl al-‘Īd, are not the exclusive fruit of Islamic religious culture, but are also shared by some Western intellectuals, amongst whom the French doctor and scientist Alexis Carrel (d. 1944), author of L’homme cet inconnu (1935), a philosophical essay dedicated in part to an ontological analysis of the human being. The author criticizes the science that claims it knows things through scientific observation alone while forgetting how humans are an indivisible whole formed by body and spirit, which distinguishes them from other living beings. The preacher quotes and comments on a passage from the French doctor’s work, according to which “human desires cannot undermine the order created by God, and women are called upon to develop their propensities in conformity with their nature, without attempting to imitate men.” Ignoring these fundamental truths—as Nawāl al-‘Īd has it—has brought feminists to believe that both sexes must be able to receive the same education, enjoy the same authority and have similar responsibilities.
The sharia adopts the law of equality and difference (qanūn al-tasāwī wa-l-ikhtilāf) deeming it suitable to realize the happiness of both sexes. Besides, the preacher concludes, the Prophet said that “women are the sisters (shaqā’iq) of men,” not that they are like men. And the question of equality between the sexes can only be a “great lie (al-kadhba al-kubrā),” as the same title of her article reminds us.
Between Conservation and Reform
Some scholars agree in claiming that the only role of Saudi women preachers in the public sphere is as women who preach to other women. As they cannot succeed in overcoming the gender boundary, they hence help to keep Saudi society profoundly patriarchal from the social point of view, and profoundly Wahhabi at the religious level.[xi] Instead, according to others, precisely the fact that they are within the system and have been able to construct credibility in the field of religious studies allows them to access positions of power in institutions and therefore challenge the gender boundaries.[xii]
If it is true that their capacity to impact is much greater among women, it is equally as true that in recent years the phenomenon of the dā‘iyāt has aroused the attention of state institutions. For example, since 2004, the city of Gedda has hosted a twice-yearly forum bringing together Saudi women preachers. In 2006, the Ministry of Religious Affairs published a leaflet in which it explained the importance of preaching moderation in order to avoid the excesses of religious extremism on one hand, and the westernization of the contents relayed on the other.[xiii] A few years later, in 2010, the Ministry of Religious Affairs started to work on creating a system that was to regularize the field of female da‘wa.[xiv] The decision came in the wake of the news stating that some female preachers had spread extremist ideas. The new law set out the creation of lists of women preachers authorized by the Ministry to perform the activity of da‘wa. In actual fact, there were two lists and they contained 190 and 180 names each.
The role of women in society has also become an important topic for King Salmān Ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Sa‘ūd and for Crown Prince Muhammad Ibn Salmān, who has made it one of the cornerstones of his reformist propaganda. Among the measures set out by “Vision 2030”—the socio-economic development plan approved by the Kingdom’s Council of Ministers in 2016—is an increase in the number of women in the labour market, which should go from 21% to 24% by 2020.[xv] In this direction, 2018 saw the establishment of the National Women’s Observatory,[xvi] a think tank affiliated to the King Saud University of Riyadh which monitors the participation of Saudi women in development and their direct impact on society. While it is true that formally some progress has been made, with the new possibility for women to travel abroad without having to ask for the consent of their mahram (since August 2019), or to drive cars (since June 2018), it is equally as true, however, that the official narrative has not prevented the Crown Prince from imprisoning some women’s rights activists such as Lujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi and Hatoon al-Fassi, the latter released in May 2019.[xvii] In the light of these facts, it is evident how women involved in the religious field are free to preach in the Kingdom so long as they help to maintain the established social balance and support the government agenda, but they may lose this freedom should they try to destabilize the status quo with requests or interpretations that contrast with the official vision.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation
To cite this article
Chiara Pellegrino, “Women Preachers at the Service of the Reason of State”, Oasis, year XV, n. 30, December 2019, pp. 61-68.
Chiara Pellegrino, “Women Preachers at the Service of the Reason of State”, Oasis [online], published on 30th November 2020, URL: /en/women-preachers-service-of-the-reason-of-state