A recent tweet from Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, al-Azhar’s Grand Imam highlights a shift in the view of the capabilities of women holding prominent positions and playing leading roles in the future of Islam.
The injustices suffered from an antiquated understanding of the religion, and a discriminatory view of women has become synonymous with the Muslim male’s view of females and their place in society.
This month al-Tayeb said that women can work in all leadership positions, including being a judge or a mufti. He added that women can travel without a male chaperone as long as it is safe. Furthermore, a guardian cannot refuse a woman’s choice of a husband without providing an acceptable reason.
His tweet, and his television show called for a revision and renewal of religious discourse and are perfect examples of his knowledge of the existing inequalities that impact women. Al-Tayeb revealed the true nature of the impetus to subjugate women under the guise of Islam as mere misogyny that should be acknowledged and repudiated.
Perhaps to a western audience, the proclamations made by the Grand Imam might seem unimportant. Of course, women are capable of working as judges, choosing their partners, taking care of themselves while traveling. What is all the fuss about, one might ask?
The fuss is about Muslim women being previously denied their basic human rights. The fuss is about the fact that being born into a religion as a woman meant automatically being viewed as incapable in many respects: incapable of making the right decisions; incapable of thinking logically, and incapable of keeping yourself safe when away from home.
Women were viewed as inferior, helpless and dependent creatures that constantly needed a male figure to manage their lives.
The Imam’s words have allowed millions of Muslim women - who secretly rejected those widely-held views to speak. His words allowed those millions of women to feel validated as full human beings and emboldened to demand to be treated as such. By speaking out he removed the cloak of Islam from the extremist ideologues who seek to oppress women out of fear.
Al-Azhar is the oldest Islamic educational institution. It was established during the Fatimid rule of Egypt and today still serves as the main religious establishment throughout the Muslim world.
Accordingly, when al-Azhar’s Grand Imam shatters some of the dogmas that hinder women from progress: his message will reverberate across the Muslim world. His words will translate into legislation that will alleviate centuries of oppression that singled females out as less than equals until some women believed it. That is what the fuss is about. I rejoiced when reading al-Tayeb’s words and you should too.
Perhaps now that the men who speak on behalf of God are silenced, women can speak openly instead, and offer an entirely different narrative.
Women will not always speak of His wrath, but of His mercy. They will not speak of vengeance and vindication but peace and harmony. We will not speak only of the correct way to worship and believe in Him, but of the multiplicity of paths that may lead to Him. Women will speak of love, of beauty, of creativity. Perhaps then the world will cease to see us all as terrorists. Perhaps then we will stop destroying his creation and start appreciating it. Perhaps then His mercy will embrace us.