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  • Women, Work, and Political Participation in Lebanese Shia Contemporary Thought: The Writings of Ayatollahs Fadlallah and Shams al-Din
  • Rola el-Husseini (bio)

In the decade following the Taif Agreement (1989), which ended the Lebanese civil war, Ayatollahs Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah and Muhammad Mahdi Shams al-Din published their first works on women’s issues.1 The development of this new gender discourse in Lebanon was mainly the result of international interest in women’s issues on the heels of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995), as well as a reaction to events occurring in Iran, where Ayatollah Khomeini had recently died and where a new discourse on gender had begun to emerge. This shift in Iranian gender discourse was monitored and to a certain extent mirrored in Lebanon. Renewed interest in gender issues among the Shia in Lebanon after Khomeini’s death provided not only a platform for Lebanese clerics to address an issue of central importance to their constituency but also an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the Iranian position.

These ayatollahs wrote on women’s issues from a position of authority as legal scholars and religious leaders, and their discourse can be termed “reformist.”2 While such reformist discourse written in Iran is mainly by Muslim intellectuals, in Lebanon it is penned by the highest religious authorities.3 This discourse on women offered a local/national discourse directed [End Page 273] toward reforming the role of women in society, but it also was an implicit critique of the Iranian understanding of women’s role in society. The discourse boosted the national and international legitimacy of both Fadlallah and Shams al-Din and bolstered Fadlallah’s claims to the marja’iyya.4 In that sense, their conceptualization of women’s role in society became in part an international dialogue and in part a reckoning with competitors, the most important of whom was Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini’s shadow still loomed large in Shia society during the 1990s.5 This article proposes to answer the following questions: How do contemporary Lebanese Shia religious leaders conceptualize the role of women? What kinds of innovations in jurisprudence have been proposed by these clerics? To what extent are these conceptualizations of women’s roles a hybrid of “modernness” and tradition? In what ways are these conceptualizations different from those promulgated by Shia religious leaders in Iran? An understanding of the importance of Fadlallah’s and Shams al-Din’s interpretations of perennial issues such as the right of women to education, women’s right to work outside the home, and women’s participation in political life and in government offers answers to these questions.

The Importance of These Texts on Women

Fadlallah and Shams al-Din provide quite distinct approaches to gender issues. The works of Shams al-Din are written for lay intellectuals and the ulema of Shiite Islam, whereas Fadallah’s writings address simple believers to guide them in their daily lives.6 The importance of these works on women lies in the fact that they are texts written consciously by men who speak from a position of authority as religious scholars. Both authors translate women’s roles in society, the political sphere, and the legal system by couching it in a Shiite discourse. It should be noted that “language and discourse play an integral role in the perpetuation of existing power relations. They serve to convey prevalent power structures, and in doing so they perpetuate the dominance of the ruling group.”7 In the case of women in Islam, the governing group has been men, who have traditionally excluded women from the interpretative and intellectual process of legislating from the Koran, the Hadith, or the Sunna.

This Shiite discourse is delivered from a position of authority, from that of two prominent religious scholars. As shown by Lara Deeb, the popular discourse of Shiism has been used by laywomen to justify their actions and beliefs and is at the root of what she terms an “authenticated” Shiite Islam.8 Roschanack Shaery-Eisenlohr has pointed out that the way certain Lebanese, namely, “Amal and affiliates of Sayyid Fadlallah[,] conceive of Iranians and Iran is intimately connected to competition among...


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pp. 273-282
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