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Egypt’s Al-Azhar retreats from fatwa on beating women

Al-Azhar's Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb ruled that women cannot leave the house without their husbands’ permission and may be beaten as long as no bones are broken, sparking an uproar in Egypt.
CAIRO, EGYPT - June 04: A portrait of the Grand Imam, Ahmed At-tayeb in his office on June 04, 2016 in Cairo,  Egypt. (Photo by David Degner/Getty Images)

CAIRO — The grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar said on his May 10 Ramadan television program that a wife must not leave the house without her husband’s permission, which he deemed a necessity for the household's stability and cohesion. Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb stressed during his program that it is normal for a wife to ask permission to go out, except when visiting her parents. He added that a woman can only go to work if her husband approves. Otherwise she must remain at home.

Tayeb made another controversial statement May 20, when he said that equality between men and women goes against nature.

Tayeb dropped yet another bombshell May 30 with another fatwa allowing husbands to beat their wives as long as no bones are broken, sparking great controversy on social media in Egypt and the Arab world. It was not long before Tayeb retracted it June 5, calling for regulations to criminalize the beating of women.

Some Egyptians supported Tayeb, but others deemed his remarks restrictive to women’s freedom and in direct conflict with the constitution. Mahmoud Mhanna, a member of the Supreme Council of Scholars at Al-Azhar, said that according to Sharia, a woman must obey her husband.

“Tayeb did not say anything strange or new. His statements are in line with the Islamic religion. The majority of old and modern scholars agree that a wife has to ask her husband’s permission before leaving the house. For some scholars, women have to ask permission even to visit their parents. According to Sharia, a man is also allowed to hit his wife but not brutally,” Mhanna told Al-Monitor via phone. 

Mhanna explained that under Sharia, if a woman disobeys her husband, he has the right to discipline her, either by “lightly” beating her without causing her major physical harm or by refraining from having sex with her. He added that the prophet used to beat his wives with a "miswak," a tooth-cleaning twig.

Mohammad al-Chahat al-Gunaydi, a member of Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Academy, concurred with Mhanna’s views. He stressed that a woman should not leave the house to visit her parents without the permission of her husband, noting that women have a duty to obey men in Islam.

“There are several examples in Islam that support this claim. Aisha, the prophet’s wife, used to ask him if she could visit her parents,” Gunaydi told Al-Monitor.

Meanwhile, Islam Barakat, a researcher on religious affairs in the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, believes that this fatwa greatly undermines the rights of women, subordinating them to men and disregarding their independence. Barakat told Al-Monitor that these statements are in direct conflict with the Egyptian Constitution, which provides for equality between men and women in civil, political, economic, social and cultural matters.

He also explained that the constitution also provides for personal freedom and freedom of movement, which were also undermined by this fatwa. Barakat questioned the timing of the fatwa, issued while Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been promoting women’s roles in society.

Mona Ezzat, director of the New Woman Foundation's Women and Work program, told Al-Monitor that such fatwas belong to backward times and violate basic human values, the law, human rights, the constitution and the principle of gender equality. Ezzat added that many women working for women’s rights condemned these fatwas and widely denounced them on social media, prompting Al-Azhar to back away from the last fatwa and demand that beating women be criminalized.

She explained that Egyptian society rejects such views as incitement against women, saying she believes that the real problem is that religion supports such backward concepts.