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Women and Islam: A Topic that Troubles

Any debate over the status of women in Islam is complicated, enormously sensitive and often politicized. One question at universities in the Arab world is whether one can apply a sociological, historical or gendered perspective to religion. A handful of Muslim (often female) academics argue that religious texts can be re-read and stripped of misogynistic interpretations; they posit that there is a strong basis for women’s rights within the framework of Islam. Yet this approach is often attacked by male religious scholars, who defend the status quo and their authority, and by social conservatives who seem to view women’s rights in Islam as a settled matter of dogma, never up for discussion.

This fraught discussion broke out anew on the campus of Qatar University last fall.

At the center of the latest debate stands Hatoon al Fassi, a Saudi academic who previously worked in the history department of King Saud University and began teaching at Qatar University in 2009. She is a prominent commentator on women’s issues in the Gulf region, and has called for women to be allowed to drive and vote in Saudi Arabia.

Al Fassi has taught a course on women and Islam at Qatar University for many years.

“I taught in a way that women will be prouder of who they are, prouder of their religion, prouder of being women,” she says. “We keep hearing Islam has given women dignity and respect, but you don’t see it in practice. My course tries to explain what went wrong and how it has to do mainly with male interference in the doctrine and interpretation of the divine.” Whether al Fassi will be allowed to teach that course anymore is unclear.

Last October, two of al Fassi’s female students wrote an article discussing women’s rights in Qatar that pointed out that Qatar does not criminalize domestic violence; that a Qatari woman who marries a foreign man cannot transfer her citizenship to her children; and that women’s political participation is limited, although the constitution stipulates equality between man and women.

The article was criticized online. When al Fassi joined the discussion to defend her students, she became the focus of that criticism. On Twitter, al Fassi was accused of “spreading […] poison in our students’ minds” and “damaging the values of Qatari society.” A hashtag calling for her to be fired from the university was created.  

On the other hand, supporters and former students spoke out online in her defense, telling her critics they should be open to debate.

“I took [the] “Women in Islam” class with Professor Hatoon …I was never offended by her ideas and teaching methods. On the contrary, I appreciated her encouragement to be critical,” wrote one former student in the comments section of an article about the campaign against the professor.

“Dr. Hatoon was undoubtedly one of the best professors I had during my bachelors in QU…Her class was indeed an eye opener for us Muslim girls who had no idea about such rights of women in Islam. I enjoyed and waited for each of her classes,” wrote another former student.

Al Fassi had been scheduled to debate a male professor from the Sharia College on the subject of women and Islam. But Qatar University’s president cancelled the debate, posting a statement to Twitter that read, in part: “The university has decided that a vitally important and sensitive topic like women in Islam should be comprehensively discussed through its various dimensions: the religious, social and academic. It, therefore, cannot be put up for a debate that only represents the viewpoints of the people participating in it. Thus, the debate has been postponed to a later date in this semester for a broader seminar to be organized where different speakers can tackle the various aspects of the topic.”

The announced seminar has never taken place, but al Fassi did speak, at Georgetown University in Qatar last week. The discussion, organized by a student club and an on-campus group for women’s advancement, stirred strong emotions. Younger students tended to support al Fassi, while one woman said “western feminism” was contrary to Islam.

The event was about “guardianship laws in the Gulf,” but during the talk, Al Fassi avoided discussing any country other than Saudi Arabia, apparently to avoid angering conservative members of the audience. However, this didn’t succeed. An elder Qatari women, Bothaina Al AbdulGhani, was the first to speak when the event was opened up for questions. She focused on defending traditional Islamic scholarship and the government of Qatar, saying that women in Qatar enjoy full rights. This didn’t sit well with younger Qatari women, who spoke after her and criticized her claims. Two young Qatari men shared the same sentiments as well.

After the Q&A session ended, a Saudi lady who said she lives in Qatar, Layla Al Ali, insisted on asking another question. She attacked Al Fassi, accusing her of being against the Saudi government and associating with what she called “Western feminism” and prostitution. She was sharply interrupted more than once by young women in the audience, while other attendees clapped in support.

Immediately afterwards, both AbdulGhani and Al Ali took to Twitter to urge Qatar University to fire al Fassi, joining many who accused her of being against Islam, society and Gulf governments. Some of al Fassi’s supporters worry that the university might cave in to this pressure by not renewing al Fassi’s contract.

Al Fassi teaches in Qatar University’s department of international affairs, which offers three courses on gender: the women and Islam course, as well as one on gender in international perspective, and gender in law.

While women’s and gender studies programs are still rare at universities in the Gulf region (and nonexistent in Saudi Arabia), they are slowly growing and are offered at Kuwait University,the University of Sharjah, and Hamid Bin Khalifa University, in Qatar.

“My point,” says al Fassi, “is that Islam has called for equality between men and women. My course is based around the empowerment of women using Islam as its reference.” Her opponents, she says, “don’t believe there is equality. For them I am twisting texts to favor women and I am criticizing the holy texts—which is not true.”

The professor says that scholars in Qatar University’s Sharia College have argued that the course should be under their purview. As one male critic put it in a tweet: “Why can’t you have a male scholar who is respectful and mindful of religion to lead this discussion? He’d more knowledgeable of the situation of women in Islam.”

Al Fassi says her syllabus featured the work of the Moroccan sociologist Fatema Mernissi and Amina Wadud, an American Muslim scholar of gender and Koranic studies. It focused on the way that the rules governing the status of women in Islam are actually “a mix between human production and divine.”

Some of her students, particularly male ones, she says, “don’t try to even read the texts and argue back—they just go online and look for rubbish criticism and come to tell me: This person is kafir [an unbeliever] and anti-Islamic. Some of them come with a prejudice, they don’t want to listen.”

Still, al Fassi says she taught her class without incident for years.

It was only in the fall of 2014 that a male student, she says, objected to her course and complained to the university administration. The student, who she says dropped out without participating in the class and didn’t do any of the readings, made “baseless accusations.”

In response, the university asked a committee of mostly male scholars to review and revise her syllabus, without her knowledge, she said. “They tore down my course, they completely altered it, and they recommended I don’t teach it.” For one semester she was allowed to teach the course to male but not female students (she was also recorded on video) and then she was removed from teaching it altogether and a male professor assigned to teach it instead. Al-Fanar Media contacted the dean of al Fassi’s college to corroborate her account but was unable to obtain a response.

Meanwhile al Fassi is waiting, hoping she will have a chance to teach a class she is passionate about once again.

Ahmad Sabri contributed additional reporting to this article.


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