Introduction

Azza 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 the changes in society, needs and demands as well as various legal, social and religious aspects, identified by the women themselves through the engagement of different women’s civil society organizations in the forum. Azza is creating new readings and interpretations in Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence) that are compatible with the current social, economic, cultural and political situation.

Azza Soliman, a lawyer and women rights activist is changing how religious edicts (fatwas) 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 will be based on a keen understanding of the modern socio-economic and legal context within the flexible and wide framework of religion. Though non-binding & non- sacred, fatwas are highly influential by affecting state laws and are widespread and can be issued by anybody.

Azza aims at promoting a new religious discourse through structuring and organizing the process of producing a fatwa with a focus on the interpretations related to women’s rights and position within Islam. She created a Religious Reform & Renewal Forum (RRRF) where social scientists, lawyers, politicians and religious leaders meet on a regular basis 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 that DNA testing in a paternity suit as well as including the mother’s name on all birth certificates.

Azza is bridging the gap between Shari’a (the Islamic religious law) and Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence offering religious interpretations complimenting Shari’a) on women’s issues, by changing the religious discourse to a new, multi- dimensioned one, working on producing fatwas based on the original purposes of Shari’a that meet the current society’s needs.

A fatwa is a religious interpretation concerning Islamic law (Shari’a) issued by an Islamic scholar. Fatwas are typically responses to specific, daily situations faced by Muslims in their life 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. This has become increasingly problematic as fatwas are now dispersed through various mediums – including internet websites, popular satellite television shows and radio programs – making it difficult to monitor them and verify their accuracy.

Azza’s forum aims at offering new religious discourse, protecting the fatwa from the current adhoc and chaotic process which is currently controlled by misinformed pseudo-religious leaders and TV satellite evangelists.

Fiqh is Islamic jurisprudence that offers religious interpretations to compliment and expand Shari’a law. Fiqh is based on the evolving rulings and interpretations of Islamic experts in Islamic jurisprudence that fit the society’s needs for solving various social, political and economic problems. 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 the Sharia law. The Sharia law is the rules and regulations derived directly from these two sources. In contrast to the Shari’a law, fiqh is not regarded as sacred and there are differing views and conclusions that 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 their 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.

As a result, and particularly in the last 30 years, countless chaotic and contradictory fatwas were released by various personalities who do not necessarily have a background in Islamic jurisprudence, prescribing a certain behavior based on their own interpretation of Islamic law (Shari’a) 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 multi-disciplinary form 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 head of Dar Al-Ifta, who is regarded as a distinguished expert in Shari’a law, is appointed to this position by the President. Al-Azhar has become under the control of the government since the 1950s and its education quality has worsened as the government added faculties such as business, medicine and engineering. As both institutions are heavily influenced by the government, there is an increasing distrust amongst the public that fatwas released are extremely politicized. Furthermore, Al-Azhar

There is a large misconception in the public eye that fatwas are in fact binding and thus, fatwas 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 that are away from formal supervision who have set up their own fatwa committees

These personalities, both religious and secular, have used popular media channels to gain fame and profit rather than moral and religious awakening. This can be seen in Egypt and in other parts of the Arab World, as these personalities are getting significant airtime in television and a large cult following as they spread political messages and controversial fatwas referring to issues about sex, marriage and relationships.

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.” These religious talk shows have also been used by the government to promote their interests. For example, an Egyptian government-owned satellite station has a show hosted by Soad Saleh, who has appeared on state-run TV programs since the early 1990s who advocated things such as a light beating of a wife is preferable to divorce because it preserves the sanctity of the family.

Fatwas have also played a significant part in determining the role of women in the Muslim world, their social and political role, and what women should and should not do. Fatwas have been released that forbid women from driving, forbid them from working certain jobs, promoting early girl marriages for the sake of maintaining their purity, advocating violence against wives, calling for adult breast- feeding and so on and so forth.

Such fatwas, create a negative perception of Islam, showing the importance of the rise of El Azhar once more, as a beacon of science and religion for the release of logical fatwas based on the Islamic Shari’a.

At the same time, there have been fatwas released that protect women’s rights. Nasr Farid Wassel, former president of Dar Al-Ifta, in an informal/personal discussion “released” a fatwa that allowed females who were raped to abort the baby within the first three months of pregnancy. Though such a fatwa is certainly applauded amongst female activists, at the same time, the fatwa was not released through the formal process, another indication that the process of releasing fatwas is lax and arbitrary.

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. There exists no official, international Islamic authority to settle legislative issues of fiqh. The closest type of organization is the Islamic Fiqh Academy, (a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC)), which has 43 member States. However, this body is merely advisory and fatwas releases by it are non-binding.

Because of this, Azza aims to revive Egypt’s Enlightenment Age, where in the past, scholars of Islam used to gain prominence by issuing fatwas characterized by their objectivity and integrity. In this regard, Azza is organizing a Religious Reform & Renewal Forum (RRRF) to fill the scientific gap needed to reform and revive Al Azhar, promoting a more multidisciplinary approach based on science and social demands to issuing fatwas and simultaneously, setting high scientific, logical standards for fatwas meeting purposes of Islamic Shari’a and those who issue them.

Azza believes that fatwas should not be issued individually, but rather issued collaboratively amongst religious, as well as legal, social, and scientific specialists, who deliberate on matters and adequately study the social and human dimensions. In this collaborative discussion, they would prioritize interests and discuss the 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 under government control and are influenced by political ideologies and government restrictions.

Azza’s idea for a religious forum began to take shape and form during her career advocating for legal rights for women in Egypt. In order to discuss women’s issues in contemporary Egyptian society, Azza saw it was necessary to engage in discussion with religious leaders and take the opinion of religious views and 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 as the institutions stipulated that meetings had to be held in private with no media coverage and there wasn’t space for open and free dialogue.

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

However, in modern history there is no longer such an institutionalized forum for discussion and open debate amongst religious and civil institutions in civil society. In 2001, Azza focused her efforts on bridging the communication gap between religious and civil institutions in Egyptian society. Azza adopted a two-pronged approach to the Religious Reform & Renewal Forum including organizing regular workshops and meetings, and publishing studies and books with the findings and results of the discussion.

By establishing this RRRF, Azza is resurrecting a mechanism for multidisciplinary dialogue, that produces fatwas fit for any time and/or space based on the purposes of Islamic Shari’a of justice and equality, following the disciplines of the revolutionary Imam, Mohammed Abdou, one of the reform advocates 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 undermined women’s position in Islam giving them unequal opportunities in a clear misinterpretation of the religion.

Since 2001, Azza has developed a working relationship amongst religious institutions and missionary men of the Ministry of Awqaf and the Grand Mufti as well as the Egyptian church clerics. She 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 the Personal Status Law and how it relates to Islamic law, the importance of reinterpretation in religion, discussing legal rights of divorced women as issues of alimony, child custody, ability to initiate the divorce and legal paternal recognition for illegitimate kids. Azza has held workshops with preachers, missionaries and imams of mosques in order to begin discussion of the importance of renewing religious discourse and to raise awareness of the 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. First, in 2006 a new law was passed that would make DNA testing mandatory in paternity cases, giving more rights to children born out of wedlock. Another law in Egypt stated that a child with no father’s name cannot have a birth certificate. Azza and the forum lobbied for change in the law, such that the mother’s name can be on the birth certificate, allowing her to claim rights to the child and provide for the child.

Azza is now in the process of institutionalizing the RRRF, and is currently developing a regulatory framework for the forum and creating the structure of the forum. This includes creating rules for membership and nomination, deciding on style of managing dialogue and the subsequent production of publications, institutionalizing the mechanisms for dialogue and communication with the necessary civil society groups.

In order to implement her idea, Azza is in the process of 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 views. It will publish the discussions and dialogues held as well as encourage discussion amongst the community. Finally, Azza sees the importance of having a process for monitoring the -opinions of the forum and plans to implement this process in five years time.

Azza is one of the earliest liberal lawyers to work on Islamic groups. She has been working in the field of Human Rights and Development for more than 12 years. Since her politically active days in university, Azza fought for women’s rights to be involved in political, economic and social activities.

A liberal activist by nature, particularly in a patriarchal society, Azza had always assumed a leading role within her family, and school. A female at peace with herself, Azza is strong-willed, never afraid of saying no, believing in the importance of following through with her principles.

In 1994, she 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 harassed and intimidated by state security. Azza knew from that point on, she will continue to work for women’s rights through mediation and constructive dialogue.

In 1995, she co-founded the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA Foundation) to provide free legal aid to women and to work to change the law for women’s rights. Oftentimes, cases and situations that arose within the society required getting religious institutions involved in the legal decisions.

Azza herself faced difficulty in gaining respect with religious authorities, particularly as a she was an unveiled, divorced women raising two sons. Yet, she used reason, logic and an understanding of Islamic principles and the history of Islam in order to face the oppressive voices she found in the religious society, gaining the trust and respect of religious figures.

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. Furthermore, Azza has conducted a number of trainings worldwide on women’s issues, human rights and gender, family courts and combating violence and discriminatory laws against women.