Syria: Women preachers get government nod

Adnkronos International
In Syria Muslim female preachers will finally be able to emerge from the underground following a decision by the government to grant them official recognition.
The so-called Qubaysiates, named after the founder of the movement, Sheika Munira al-Qubaysi, can be easily spotted on the streets of Damascus and other Syrian towns draped in their long-dark robes, ankle length pleated skirts and low-heeled rubber shoes. But until now members of the movement - estimated to number more than 30,000 - have been barred from preaching in public.
Welcoming the government's decision, a senior Islamic cleric Muhammad Said Ramadan al-Buti, said the women do not represent a threat to society or the state since they always "bless [Syrian] President Bashar al-Assad, without becoming mixed up in politics."

Al-Qubaysi, a 60-year-old woman, of whom little is known, started her religious militancy four decades ago, gathering small groups of women for prayers. These meetings make up much of the activities of the movement which has also branched out to do charity work. It is not a registered organisation or association and most meetings are held at homes, mosques frequented by well-known members, and on some occasions during parties or social events.

The women are generally reluctant to talk but one member told Adnkronos International (AKI) last year that they are “active in encouraging young women to follow the precepts of Islam." And some mothers who are not members have had Qubaysiate teachers tell them to prevent their daughters watching television. They do not "represent any political line, but simply work in the schools to teach young people" another member told AKI.

The small prayer groups are class-defined and separated one from the other. But all the members who follow al-Qubaysi can easily recognise one another on the street; by the way they dress, by the way their headscarf is tied under their chin.

Unlike other women's charitable organisations, such as the Nouktat Hliba association which distributes baby milk to needy mothers and gets funding from various Arab nations, the Qubaysiate have no need of financial assistance from abroad.

Food and medical assistance to women members in the poorest areas is provided by the funds that the more well-to-do and professional members manage to collect.

The Qubaysiate have over the years had good relationships with authorised Muslim organisations, such as the Abo al-Nour institute and the Islamic Study Centre and contacts with the Mufti and the ministry of religious affairs.

The condition of women remains one of Syria's weak points and something the Qubaysiate are seeking, from their conservative religious standpoint, to tackle. Female illiteracy rates are estimated at 40 per cent nationwide, but that figure raises to 80 per cent in the Syrian countryside, according to data gathered by the Syrian Women's League.

Other issues are the new family law which in the case of divorce allows the husband to ban his wife from the family home, not provide maintenance payments and retain custody of the children once they reach 13 years (boys) and 15 (girls). Until recently those figures were respectively 9 and 11. Another obstacle is a law which does not allow a Syrian woman to pass on her nationality to her children.

The Syrian government of president Hafez Assad, and then his son Bashar, has always tried to encourage the spread of 'moderate' Islam. Firstly because the Alawites, a Muslim splinter group, to whom the Assad family belongs, are a minority in Syria (around 13 per cent of the population). After the brutal repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982, in which some 20,000 people were killed, the policy of the regime has been to give space to religion as long as it conforms.

This means giving space to the moderate Sunnis who are the majority. Since the early 1980s, 6,000 mosques have been built in the country. More than 120 al-Assad institute for religious studies have been opened and 600 similar religious high schools annexed to mosques. Qubaysi's movement has opened around thirty schools in recent times.

Some secular movements are concerned that the Qubaysiate and other more traditional Islamic forces could provide a base for the growth of radical religious movements, but most Syrians don't seem to share this concern.

05-May-06 17:07