Religious Women's Societies in Syria

Angry, But Tame?

Syria's religious women's societies have one thing in common: They aspire to re-Islamization, which bolsters their self-confidence toward the West, themselves and their regime. Mona Sarkis on the women's society known as "Qubaisiat"

Traditionally dressed Syrian women with abaya and hijab (photo: dpa)
The Syrian regime does not quite seem to know what to do about the country's religious women's societies

​​8000 Mosques, 120 Koran study institutes built by the first family, 600 institutes that are either independent or integrated into mosques - Ibrahim Hamidi, Syria correspondent for the Saudi daily newspaper Al-Hayat, could go on and on.

Re-Islamization has taken hold of Syria. And of Syrian women: In Damascus, 80 schools serve more than 75,000 women. More than half of them are affiliated with the so-called "Qubaisiat," probably the country's most influential religious women's society.

The name derives from Munira al-Qubaisi. Born in 1933, she began her studies at the Abu Nour Foundation in the 1960s under Ahmad Kuftaro, Syria's Grand Mufti at the time. Kuftaro's son, currently the head of Abu Nour, refers to the concept of Islam as developed by Munira al-Qubaisi as Sufistic. Others regard it as fundamentalist.

Total obedience to Munira al-Qubaisi

Koran exegete Muhammad Schahrour even believes that al-Qubaisi's goal is the "foundation of a Taliban state." However, he doubts her ability to realize this vision.

The trademark of the community, whose membership is estimated to run into the tens of thousands, is unconditional loyalty to various sheikhas. Ultimately, Munira al-Qubaisi is entroned at the top of this hierarchy –approaching the status of a deity. "Through her, the supreme sheikha, we reach Allah. She is our intermediary," raves one newly recruited "sister" who does not wish to be identified.

She, too, will only learn of the other views held by the society after demonstrating her loyalty over the course of many years. However, she is already allowed to know this much: Obedience to Munira al-Qubaisi is more important than obedience to one's father, husband or legal guardian. "If the sheikha ordered me to divorce my husband – because he is not devout enough, for example – I would obey. Because betraying the sheikha would be equivalent to betraying Allah."

Another characteristic of the women is their social status. They are well-off and prefer to recruit "sisters" from a similar background. In this fashion, they create a network that pervades the class of Syrian opinion makers.

Charity in the service of religion

According to Schahrour, they also help their families acquire important positions in this manner. Visibly at least, they are committed to charity in the service of a religion that requires the giving of alms, as well as education in schools and kindergartens.

Muhammad Habash, who favors a moderate form of Islam and is an independent member of parliament, stresses that their teaching material is better than that of state-run schools. However, everything is carried out in consultation with the Ministry of Education.

In a dictatorship, anything else would be surprising. Yet the society is indeed suspected of secret activities; its religious rituals are not carried out publicly.

For that reason, says Habash, there is no reason whatsoever to assume that the community has political ambitions or activities. The fact that such speculation is a hot topic in many Internet forums would appear to support his opinion: Truly dissident subjects are hardly debated at all in this realm.

In June 2004, Schaaban Abboud, Syria correspondent for the Lebanese daily newspaper Al-Nahar, wrote – citing secret service sources – that "high authorities" were protecting this "well organized" women's network and were making it difficult for lower-level secret service officers to investigate their activities more closely.

The home as the only worthy place for a woman

But the bubbling rumour mill is indeed an indication of the discomfort "Qubaisiat" inspires. Even more so since the wave is spreading.

The sister of Ahmad Jibril, leader of the "People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command," is also said to be a leading figure in the Qubaisiat movement. This causes Syria insider Hamidi to grin widely: traditionally, the General Command – which has close ties to the Syrian regime – officially follows the regime's line, a secular Arabic nationalism.

So, what business does Jibril's sister have on the "opposing" religious side? For Kuftaro, the reason is the "failure of Arabic nationalism." It can in fact not be denied that secular pan-Arabism, which has been the regime's raison d'être for the past four decades, has not flourished particularly.

In the 1980s, the regime already began searching for a way out, and found one in the promotion of a moderate, Sufistic Sunnism. By building an increasing number of mosques that are also accessible outside of regular prayer hours and offer lessons in Islam, it satisfied a people hungry for a sense of identification – while (more or less) reserving for itself the right to add ingredients.

The existence of the different women's communities suggests that their calculated plan has been successful. From the powerful "Qubaisiat" to the Aleppine "Mutassaufiate" ("aligned with Sufism") to Kuftaro's community – all of them preach that the home is the only worthy place for a woman – and are thus promoting the exclusion of their gender from the building of a civil society. In the process, they are rendering a valuable service to the dictatorship: After all, half of the population is female.

Mona Sarkis

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Mark Rossman

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