Fatwa Frenzy: Skewing the Education Fatwa Issue

The right to an education is one of the most basic rights that any person can have. Yet this right is often denied to women, including many women in various Muslim societies. We have examples of women in the formative era of Islam who benefited from education and who were scholars in their own right. Still, the right to be educated is one that is fought for by Muslim women’s rights activists and a right recently reaffirmed by an Islamic scholar. Fatemeh linked to two stories about the fatwa issued by the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Ali Jumaa and published by the General Authority for Religious Affairs and Endowments in the UAE.

The fatwa itself does not say anything extraordinary. It gives women the right to pursue an education even if their fathers or other guardians prevent them from doing so. The fatwa also prohibited guardians from turning down “reasonable” marriage prospects chosen by women as well as preventing women from working when “There is a personal need for it, or a public need, and it is work that does not overstep the line into what is forbidden in Islam”. These are rights that women’s rights activists have fought for for some time.

What I found more interesting than the fatwa itself was the coverage of fatwa between The National, an English language daily published in Dubai, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. The differences begin with the titles that the two publications use for their articles. The National’s piece is titled “Fatwa empowers women in marriage and education”. This title, while not neutral, presents the reader with the idea that the goal of the fatwa is reaffirm rights for women.

The title of The Chronicle’s piece however is much more loaded. “Muslim Women May Defy Fathers’ Wishes and Go to University, Legal Authority Rules” paints a much different picture of the fatwa. The title of the Chronicle’s article pits Muslim women against their Muslim fathers and gives a much more combative picture of the fatwa. The fatwa wasn’t meant to make Muslim women fight their fathers, nor was that the intent of it. The fatwa gives Islamic justification for women to seek an education when they may encounter resistance from a guardian, which is not limited to their fathers. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the title of the Chronicle’s article pits Muslim women against Muslim men and depicts Muslim men as collectively denying Muslim women their rights.

The National’s article provided a more thorough analysis of the fatwa, discussing the question posed to the mufti, the school of jurisprudence that the mufti follows, the various issues that were addressed by the fatwa (marriage and medical care in addition to education) and what a fatwa is. The Chronicle’s article only touched on education (although to be fair, higher education is the primary focus of the publication) and was much briefer than The National’s. The brevity of the Chronicle’s article may have been due to the fact that it was posted on the publication’s blog site, as opposed to the main site.

The Chronicle’s post, not surprisingly, pointed out how many women in Arab countries are illiterate compared to men and how this shows the barriers that exist for Muslim women in obtaining an education. “However, one sign that significant barriers to higher education continue to exist for Muslim women is the fact that 42 percent of women in the Middle East and North Africa are illiterate, compared with 22 percent of men.” The most glaring problem with this conclusion is that Arab and Muslim once again become synonymous. It may be hard to not to do this since the media, The National included,  is applying the fatwa to Muslim women and not just one group of Muslim women. Still, the statistics itself was not necessary and did not add much to the story.

This quote from the Chronicle also did not add much: “Even in wealthy Muslim countries like the United Arab Emirates — where more women than men attend university — there remain pockets of extremely conservative families that forbid female members to pursue a higher degree.” The Chronicle, as opposed to The National, seemed intent not on focusing on the fatwa itself but on depicting a battle between the Muslim sexes. It seems to make no difference that the fatwa was given by a man, or that Dr. Jumaa wasn’t seeking to cause a war between women and their fathers (in fact, he reaffirms women being under the guardianship of their father even as adults). The author of the Chronicle’s post seemed intent on framing the fatwa in a way that was mostly negative and combative, despite the fact that it was not really necessary.

While no media can be truly neutral, I admit that I did expect more from The Chronicle, considering its high standard of journalism in the education. In the future, I hope this standard is extended when covering to issues related to Muslim women.