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Christians in the Muslim World

Women Preachers at the Service of the Reason of State

Women in Mecca [Shutterstock].

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.

This article was published in Oasis 30. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2021-01-13 14:16:19

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.


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