Azza Soliman

Ashoka Fellow
This description of Azza Soliman's work was prepared when Azza Soliman was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011 .

Introduction

Azza Soliman is advocating for a new religious discourse with a special focus on issues pertaining to women’s rights. Through the creation of a multi-sector forum, controversial fatwas on women’s issues are revised and reinterpreted to reflect changes in society’s needs and demands. Through the participation and involvement of women’s citizen organizations (COs) in the forum, women select the various legal, social, and religious issues that they would like revise. Azza is creating new readings and interpretations in Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence) that are compatible with the current social, economic, cultural, and political situation.

The New Idea

Azza, a lawyer and women’s rights activist, is changing how fatwas (religious edicts) are made and produced; from exclusively depending on the opinion of a religious leader and his understanding of the religion, to a participatory and multidisciplinary approach whereby fatwas are based on a keen understanding of the modern socioeconomic and legal context within the flexible and wide framework of religion. Though non-binding and non-sacred, fatwas are highly influential, particularly through their affect on state laws and their widespread use and proclamation.

Azza aims to promote a new religious discourse by structuring and organizing the process of producing a fatwa with a focus on the interpretations related to women’s rights and their position within Islam. She created Religious Reform & Renewal Forum (RRRF) for social scientists, lawyers, politicians, and religious leaders to regularly meet to discuss and produce informed public statements about relevant issues and causes related to women in Islam. To date, Azza has managed to influence a number of laws in Egypt, namely, providing rights for children born out of wedlock—such as requiring DNA testing in a paternity suit, as well as including the mother’s name on all birth certificates.

Azza is bridging the gap between Sharia (Islamic religious law) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence offering religious interpretations complementing sharia) on women’s issues, by changing the current single faceted religious discourse to a new, multi-dimensioned one, working to produce fatwas that are both based on the original purposes of sharia and are able to meet society’s current needs.

The Problem

Fiqh is important in Muslim societies because it provides a logical explanation for modern day situations and interpretations of the Quran and Sunna; the two main sources that are the basis of Sharia law. Sharia law is the rules and regulations derived directly from these two sources. In contrast to Sharia law, fiqh is not regarded as sacred and there are differing views and conclusions various schools of thought can make for the same issue.

Fiqh is issued through fatwas, a religious interpretation on various issues that affects Muslim daily life, including marriage, abortion, female circumcision, and other social and moral questions. Typically, fatwas are released by a person of Islamic authority, known as a Mufti. However, anyone trained in Islamic law may issue a fatwa or interpretation on his/her teachings. Unlike Christianity, Islam does not have a clergy or a church, nor is there a legislative body that monitors fiqh, and consequently, the fatwas released under fiqh. The closest type of organization is the Islamic Fiqh Academy, (a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which has forty-three member States. However, this body is merely advisory and fatwas released by it are non-binding.

As a result, and particularly in the last thirty years, countless chaotic and contradictory fatwas were released by personalities who do not necessarily have a background in Islamic jurisprudence, prescribing a certain behavior based on their own interpretation of sharia and the narratives of the Prophet Muhammad and his disciples. Many of these recent fatwas were issued undermining the role of women in Islam, failing to present solutions to problems of legal parental recognition of illegitimate children, divorce, abortion, and other serious matters. Within such a context, Azza’s multidisciplinary forum is a revival of the important role played by ulema, or scholars, who used to interpret and try to find answers to daily, contemporary issues in the main two sources of Sharia law.

In Egypt, two state-based institutions are given official responsibility to issue fatwas: 1) Dar Al-Ifta, a governmental agency and 2) Al-Azhar, the center for Islamic learning and teachings. The Egyptian president appoints the head of Dar Al-Ifta. Since the 1950s, Al-Azhar is under the control of the government and the quality of education has worsened as the government added additional academic faculties such as business, medicine, and engineering. Because the government heavily influences both institutions, the public is extremely distrustful of the fatwas that are released because they’re highly politicized and seen to promote government interests.

A fatwa is a religious interpretation concerning Islamic law, sharia, issued by an Islamic scholar. Fatwas are typically responses to specific, daily situations faced by Muslims and cover a wide range of issues from customs of marriage, financial affairs, to war, abortion, female circumcision, and other moral and social questions. Thus, fatwas have been issued to serve political, economic, and personal interests by interpreting religious texts to meet these interests. There is a great misconception in the public eye that fatwas are in fact binding and thus, play an influential role in the daily life of Muslims who rely on the opinions of leading religious authorities and theologians. Over the years, there has been an explosion of individuals issuing fatwas—religious men (labeled by Azza as private sector individuals) who use Internet websites, satellite television shows, and mosques to set up their own fatwa committees. These religious leaders often operate on their own agendas and are not monitored in any formal way.

Satellite television channels, such as Egypt’s Dream TV have daily religious talk shows that have gained increasing popularity over the years, reaching millions across the Arab world. Amr Khafagah, Dream TV’s station programming director has commented on the proliferation of religious talk shows, saying “It’s a social trend, not a religious trend. It’s something like a mania, with fans and stars.” The government has also used religious talk shows to promote political interests.

Fatwas have also played a significant part in determining the social and political role of women in the Muslim world, and what women should and should not do. Fatwas have been released that forbid women from driving, from working in certain jobs, promote early marriages with young girls for the sake of maintaining their purity, advocate violence against wives, call for adult breast-feeding, and the list continues. Such fatwas create a negative perception of Islam, demonstrating the importance of the rise of Al-Azhar once more, as a beacon of science and religion for the release of logical fatwas based on the Islamic sharia. This conflict in Egypt is symptomatic of a central challenge facing Islamic communities as they debate how to interpret the true nature of their faith to accommodate modernity.

The Strategy

Azza’s idea for a religious forum began to take shape during her career advocating for legal rights for women in Egypt. To discuss women’s issues in contemporary Egyptian society, Azza saw that it was necessary to engage in discussion with religious leaders and take the opinion of religious views, laws, and interpretations of religious texts. Egyptian law was influenced by the opinions of religious scholars and thus, her work required meeting with various Muslim and Christian clerics to stimulate dialogue and openly debate women’s issues with them. However, there were a number of reservations and restrictions when she began talking with official religious institutions, for example, stipulating that meetings be held in private with no media coverage and that there was not space for open and free dialogue.

Azza began to see the importance of civil society in questioning religious edicts that come out of these government-monitored institutions whose messaging must be in line with the ruling regime, and is restricted by sectarianism and individuals with only religious learning and no academic credentials. During the Egyptian Enlightenment in the 18th century, there were “cultural literary salons” held among people of religion, policy, law, and medicine to discuss social, cultural, and political issues. In these salons, religious leaders and leading intellectuals made informed judgments when issuing fatwas. Such fatwas provided equality to the sexes and ensured that women’s rights were protected.

By establishing RRRF, Azza is resurrecting a mechanism for multidisciplinary dialogue that produces fatwas fit for the purposes of Islamic sharia of justice and equality, following the disciplines of the revolutionary Imam, Mohammed Abdou, a reform advocate of the modern Islamic Renaissance. Her innovation is to institutionalize that mechanism and to focus on women’s issues—given that the majority of recent fatwas undermine women’s position in Islam, by misinterpreting the religion.

Since 2001 Azza has developed a working relationship among religious institutions and missionary men of the Ministry of Awqaf and the Grand Mufti as well as Egyptian church clerics. She has organized joint dialogues with the Missionary Department of the Ministry of Awqaf.

Workshops are held with religious figures, legal experts and human rights activists to discuss issues such as Egypt’s personal status law and how it relates to Islamic law, the importance of reinterpretation in religion, the legal rights of divorced women such as issues of alimony, child custody, the ability to initiate divorce, and the legal paternal recognition for illegitimate children. Azza has held workshops with preachers, missionaries, and imams of mosques to begin discussion of the importance of renewing religious discourse and to raise awareness of the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.

The outcome of such workshops, discussions, debates, and research led to the publication of a number of studies and books in 2006 and 2009 by prominent religious scholars on the role and rights of women as interpreted from Islamic law. The forum was also able to change two important laws in Egypt. In 2006 a law was passed that would make DNA testing mandatory in paternity cases, giving more rights to children born out of wedlock. Another law stated that a child without a father’s name could not have a birth certificate. Azza and the forum lobbied to change the law, so that the mother’s name can be on the birth certificate, allowing her to claim rights and provide for the child.

Azza is in the process of institutionalizing the RRRF, and is currently developing a regulatory framework and structure for the forum. This includes creating rules for membership and nomination, deciding on a style to manage dialogue, the production of publications, and institutionalizing mechanisms for dialogue and communication with COs.

To implement her idea, Azza is selecting scholars, professionals, and scientists from various sectors to participate in the forum. She is also creating a mechanism to conduct debate, dialogue, and exchange of research. Furthermore, Azza plans to create an information bureau for the forum to announce and promote the forum’s works and perspective. It will publish the discussions and dialogues as well as encourage discussion among the community. Azza sees the importance of having a process for monitoring the opinions of the forum and she will implement this process within five years.

Azza believes that fatwas should not be issued singularly, but collaboratively, among religious, as well as legal, social, and scientific specialists, who deliberate and study the social and human dimensions of their decisions. A collaborative discussion would prioritize the interests and legal consequences of their interpretation. Furthermore, Azza’s RRRF is autonomous, independent and nonpartisan, as opposed to Dar Al-Ifta and Al-Azhar which are government-controlled and influenced by government restrictions.

The Person

Azza is one of the earliest liberal lawyers to work with Islamic groups—being in the field of human rights and development for more than twelve years. Since her politically active days in university, Azza has fought for the inclusion of women’s rights in political, economic, and social activities.

In a patriarchal society, Azza assumed a leading role within her family and school. She is strong-willed, never afraid to say no, and follows through on her principles.

In 1994 Azza spoke to BBC about the role of women in political Islamic-oriented opposition parties. Because of her frank discussion about women’s roles in the organization, she was intimidated by state security. She knew from that point on that she would continue to work for women’s rights through mediation and constructive dialogue.

In 1995 Azza co-founded the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance to provide free legal aid to women and to work toward changing laws for women. During her work, she often found that cases and situations that arose within society required getting religious institutions involved in the legal decisions.

Azza faced difficulty in gaining the respect of religious authorities, particularly as an unveiled, divorced women raising two sons. Yet, she used reason, logic, and an understanding of Islamic principles and the history of Islam to counter the oppressive religious voices, and gain their trust and respect.

Azza is internationally recognized for her expertise in women’s right issues in the Middle East. She serves as a consultant for various governmental and non-governmental organizations, including UNICEF, UNIFEM, UNDP, and the Ministry of Health, the Jordanian, Qatari and Saudi Arabian governments, and the Supreme Council for Women in Bahrain. Azza has also conducted a number of trainings worldwide on women’s issues, such as human rights, gender, family courts, and combating violence and discriminatory laws against women.