Azza Soliman is a fierce woman and human rights activist, who took on the revolutionary road in college. She realized the importance of civil society in criticizing and questioning religious orders and is considered one of the first liberal lawyers to work with Islamic groups. We talked with Azza Soliman about the perception of women in religion and why many people think religion oppresses women.
We’ve heard that you are creating new readings and interpretations in Islamic Fiqh, what does that mean?
We used to work generally on women’s rights laws and its development. When we made a study on the impact of Khul’a law on women, we found that the changes weren’t that fruitful which means there should be a revolution specifically against Personal Affairs Laws in Egypt.Years ago, we didn’t have the political will to do that and some said that any changes in the law will contradict Islamic Sharia but no one actually defined what Sharia is. When Hind El Henawy came to us with her parents to implement her case, we put it in a bigger context which was “Orfi Marriages: Who pays the price?”. We tackled the situation of illegitimatechildren and how they should carry their father’s name. All Fiqh clerics said thatillegitimate children shouldn’t get their father’s name. When I started researching, I found out that the Quran didn’t say that at all, all of thiswasa result of Fiqh research. After all these years I found out that we are brought up to some things that were said to be in the Quran while they’re not! Shockingly, statistics show that there are 10,000 to 12,000 children in Egyptian courts without fathers. I talk to religious clerics and ask them how they deal with these figures,which are social bombs on their own. And how DNA testing would solve lots of problems,which finally convinced a lot of them. Laws manage lives and I’m not sitting in an air conditioned office every day, I’m out there seeing and meeting all these women and children in courts who suffer from the corruption of personal affairs laws in Egypt.
“After all these years I found out that we are brought up to some things that were said to be in the Quran while they’re not!”
Why do Khul’a cases stay in courts for years after all these fights to have a law that sets a woman free?
The creation of laws takes years without a goal. When Khul’a was issued by the parliament, it didn’t come out with an explanatory memorandum so most judges decisions are biased from their cultural background and the environment they come from which sometimes makes them decide that these women don’t have the right to get Khul’a.
With mixed media messages, many people started thinking that religion hates women, how can you explain this?
All religions came to make people happy.Depression and division are results of human beings.After Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) died, people started to treat the “Rashdeen Caliphs” and other Faqihs as saints so the perception of disobeying them reflected in disobeying Islam. This resulted in harming religion itself and turning it into a negative thing. You won’t find violence against women in all Prophetic Biographies. When the Prophet’s wife entered a room where he was meeting with his Sahaba and threwa dish that belonged to Zeinab Bent Gahsh (his wife whom he married after Aisha) and broke it on his table in an angry manner and left, the Prophet laughed and said to his visitors “She is jealous”. He didn’t beat her or even shout at her, he laughed. Unfortunately, no one tells similar stories, no one tells stories of how the Prophet (PBUH) used to love his wives and was always there for them, his sons died and his daughters lived, what was the idea behind all these signs? There are so many rich meanings. People who call themselves religious clerics don’t discuss these examples.
Are men and women equal in Islam?
Is there a punishment women receive more than men? Will men get rewarded more than women on judgment day? The answer is no, so if the whole life is based on reward and punishment then men and women are equal in Islam. When someone says that Islam came with the most important principle, which is “Justice”, I say that Islam came with “Freedom”. If we will talk about freedom in personal affairs laws we will find that Islam gave women the absolute right to choose a husband and to leave a husband if she doesn’t want to live with him anymore.
“No one tells stories of how the Prophet (PBUH) used to love his wives and was always there for them, his sons died and his daughters lived, what was the idea behind all these signs? There are so many rich meanings. People who call themselves religious clerics don’t discuss these examples.”
Should we blame religious clerics or blame ourselves for the lack of awareness?
We should blame everything, but state institutions are to blame first. Mubarak’s regime deceived us and sold us all. On a positive side, I see lots of people starting to read and research Islamic teachings in Quran trying to match up to what the MB are saying. Other people are starting to hate religion and lots of atheists are coming out although lots of them were secretly atheists before.
As a female public speaker, who talks about religion, did you face any obstacles?
Once a Sheikh said to me “instead of criticizing state institutions go get veiled”. I told him that if you are really pro veil you should ask the First Lady to get veiled (Suzanne Mubarak at that time) and if you are pro Islam “the best Jihad is to say a word of truth in the face of an oppressive Sultan”. Of course I said the words that he never would have had the courage to say, but I feel that I have a message and a duty towards this country and I believed that Mubarak’s regime was corrupt and unfair.He then came to me and apologized. Other sheikhs tell me you are a great woman, but you know you just need to get veiled (laughs). Religious clerics are behind closed doors, so I’m always in discussions and negotiations with Salafis and Islamists, because they are stereotyping us as we are stereotyping them. We need the discussion and find points of intersection.
“If we will talk about freedom in personal affairs laws we will find that Islam gave women the absolute right to choose a husband and to leave a husband if she doesn’t want to live with him anymore.”
What about Coptic divorce issues? Why is it untackled?
That was a great taboo in Mubarak’s regime, they didn’t want to tackle Christian divorce problems. When we used to have any seminars regarding Christian divorce problems, the Pope’s office used to call us the morning of the seminar and cancel. In 2008, Pope Shenouda sent us Bishop Beshoy and that was the first Orthodox presencein our seminars. After this seminar, an anchor from the Egyptian Satellite Channel got a warning and was asked not to tackle any topics like these again. A very small number of Christians used to revolt against the church but now it’s different and that’s one of the revolution’s achievements. They became liberated from the grip of the church and started forming revolutionary groups like “Group 88”, “Hanging on Church’s Wall” and others.
Were Personal Affairs Laws handled better at the times of Suzanne Mubarak?
Things were stable but how stable? Stable and corrupted. We used to suffer in changing personal affairs laws; we used to suffer in breaking taboos of topics related to violence against women. In the past regime, we were accused of showing the country’s dirty laundry, Farkhanda Hassan used to tell us that we will scandalize the country if we kept on talking about domestic violence and domestic adultery. Farkhanda acted like a secretary to Suzanne, just someone who carries a purse. Suzanne Mubarak wanted to have the image of goodwill and a women’s rights fighter but that was just the image and no change.