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Have Egypt’s Salafists had a change of heart on female leaders?

The controversy over the appointment of Nadia Abdou as Egypt's first female governor continues within the Salafi Call and may lead to internal divisions in the movement.

CAIRO — The Salafi Call has been known to modify and review several fatwas in the past, in light of prevailing political circumstances. Between 2011 and 2014, the movement had issued a fatwa prohibiting Coptic candidates from running in the parliamentary elections, but then in 2015 it changed its mind to include a number of Copts on its electoral lists, as per the election law at the time.

This time, the Salafi Call seems to be having a change of heart in regard to women in leadership positions.

The shift in position came under the spotlight March 30 when one of the users of the Salafi internet platform Anasalafy (I am Salafi) raised the subject. The user asked, “Has the Salafi Call changed its opinion on women in [public] leadership positions? Women were not allowed to assume positions such as governor, but now no objections are being raised in this respect! A fatwa by the Salafi Call’s deputy chief Yasser Borhami stated that the position of governor varies from one country to another and from one era to another, according to the law and the constitution as well as according to the current situation. Therefore, a decision in this respect requires further study of all of these circumstances. A hasty judgment without a legal, factual and Sharia examination is unacceptable.”

On April 3, Borhami answered the question, writing, “When we say a matter requires further examination, this does not mean that we have changed our mind. If this was the case, what is wrong in reconsidering [a fatwa] that appears to need further study, especially in light of the changing reality. The law confers to the governor powers that may be contradictory with the current circumstances in light of influential factors of each place and time. I think there is no constitutional, legal, Sharia and factual examination [of this matter], but we are exerting efforts in this direction.”

Borhami’s fatwa on not rushing into a decision on women assuming leadership positions, such as the post of governor, was published by Anasalafy and the Voice of the Salaf website affiliated with the Salafi Call on March 2 when he commented on the Feb. 16 appointment of Nadia Abdou as governor of Beheira and the controversy this appointment has stirred within the Salafi Call.

“The appointment of women to the post of governor is contrary to Sharia,” said Sameh Abdel Hamid, a Salafi preacher close to Borhami, on the TV show "Al-Ashira Masa'an" ("10 o'clock") that aired on Dream TV on Feb. 19. His statements caused much confusion.

Abdel Hamid said that a woman’s role is to take care of her husband and her children, and that she is not eligible to take up a leading government or state position that involves physical or psychological hardships that women cannot endure.

Hamid’s statement sparked controversy during the show, as Maya Morsi, the head of the National Council for Women, made a live phone intervention denouncing his statements.

“According to Article 11 of the constitution, the state shall also guarantee women’s right of holding public and senior management offices in the state and their appointment in judicial bodies and authorities without discrimination,” she said, adding that women are the breadwinners of one-third of Egyptian households, which proves that they are fit for public office.

Borhami’s fatwas calling for further examination of the legal and factual context of the issue of women in leadership positions helped calm the attacks against the Salafi Call by the National Council for Women and a number of activists and human rights organizations.

However, his fatwas and comments provoked a dispute within the Salafi Call. Hamed Abu Hamza, a young leader of the Defend the Scholars movement affiliated with the Salafi Call, criticized Borhami’s acceptance of Abdou’s appointment, and told Al-Monitor, “The issue is clear and does not require any kind of study because women are not allowed to assume executive positions. We learned from our sheikhs and scholars that women are not allowed to go out into the field alongside men and hold peer-to-peer negotiations. Whoever believes the contrary is surely mistaken. We must strictly abide by the known legal rules. In case these rules were broken, the most we can do is remain silent, but we surely should not be showing support."

Hisham al-Najjar, a journalist specialized in Islamic movements, told Al-Monitor, “Some Salafists refuse the idea of allowing women and Copts to assume public leadership office while others are trying to go with the flow and maintain their political presence through the Nour Party, as the sole representative of the Islamic movement in Egypt after the dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is clearly reflected in Borhami’s fatwa that calls for further examination.”

He added, “The Salafi Call and its political wing the Nour Party are adopting a double-standard approach and an ambiguous discourse that may be subject to multiple interpretations. This could help them maintain the support of part of their members and popular base but will make them lose a large part of their young popular base who feel strongly about enforcing the fatwas issued by the Salafi Call in the previous years. For these young supporters, these fatwas represent the core ideology, which cannot be easily changed — even by new fatwas issued by the Salafi Call.”

Ahmad Atta, a researcher on Islamic movements at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told Al-Monitor, “Borhami’s fatwas are an attempt to beautify the image of the Salafi Call and to make it appear tolerant in dealing with women just like it did before with the Copts. But this attempt will not succeed since the Egyptian society is not buying it. The society has realized that the Salafi Call’s views do not reflect the truth of Islam and its teachings. These attempts will lead only to further divisions within the Salafi Call without embellishing this movement’s image within the Egyptian society.”

In light of the renouncement of its previous positions, even if by means of evasion, the Salafi Call may see itself facing internal divisions, splits or disagreements such as the ones existing now regarding the position of women in leadership positions.

An explicit declaration by the Salafi Call that it has erred in issuing previous fatwas and that it will revise its decisions based on a more modern approach in line with the existing political conditions may be necessary, even if this would cause a rift with some of the movement’s members and supporters.

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