On the Internet, Ruqayyah bint Muhammad al-Muharib answers questions about Islam. She writes on subjects as varied as corruption, pilgrimage, terrorism and Valentine’s Day. He quotes from the Koran, the holy book. Give your opinion and make recommendations.
Women like Muharib have gained ground in the online religious debate within Salafism, a conservative Islamic movement. It’s a new phenomenon – and something the researchers didn’t expect to see.
These preachers work on religious sites like Alukah and Sayid al-Fawaid, where millions of users pass by. They challenge this audience with men who also write about Islam.
“When I found women preaching with authority on these sites, I was very surprised and wanted to know more,” explains political scientist Richard Nielsen, who teaches at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). He recently published a study on this topic, as part of his larger project to understand the impact of the Internet on religious authority.
It is not that women have or have never had authority in Islam. There are historical and contemporary examples of this. The novelty is scale and growth. It’s also new that men are engaging with them – with comments and likes on social media.
One explanation for this phenomenon, says Nielsen, is simple: The Internet is increasingly penetrating predominantly Muslim countries. Moreover, at a time like this, during a pandemic, much of the rituals of mosques migrated to virtual platforms.
But what seems even more peculiar is that, on the Internet, women manage to escape the restrictions of gender diversity. In conservative aspects such as Salafism, there is very little interaction. A man is unlikely to feel like hearing an unknown woman talk about religion in a country like Saudi Arabia, Nielsen says.
On the networks, on the other hand, it is possible to read all the texts of a preacher and comment on them one by one without fear of breaking a taboo or of being the target of social censorship. “The internet provides anonymity that didn’t exist,” says Nielsen. Many of these men praise the work of these preachers in their comments on the networks.
Another interesting factor, he says, is that women are more versed in the language of the Internet and better understand how to use their tools. On the Salafist sites Nielsen studied, they respond more to comments from their followers than do male preachers. They interact, they breathe.
Little is known about the biographies of these women. Many of them don’t even show their faces or use their real names. But what Nielsen does know is that half of the women he seeks out have a doctorate in Islamic sciences. This reflects the growth of higher education among women in countries like Saudi Arabia, one of the centers of Salafi doctrine. Nielsen also noted that several of them came from influential families, where other religious came from.
These women generally preach on subjects considered “feminine” in their societies. They write about menstruation, education and children. “But what is really surprising is that they also preach on other topics,” says Nielsen. For example, a woman from the Al al-Sheikh family wrote a text on terrorism and its effects on the rest of the Islamic community.
Nielsen speaks cautiously about these examples because he acknowledges that despite the transformations he sees on the internet, there are still clear limits to women’s online activity. None of them have the same reach, for example, as the famous clerics who speak to millions of followers today. They follow the margins, in that sense.
Another obstacle is that the women who write on the websites Nielsen studied were recruited for this role. This is not an insurrection, an upward movement. The top of the religious hierarchy has somehow placed them in this position of power – which in itself is already a kind of filter. Yet the content they write isn’t fully censored. And, in the comment boxes, they respond when men “correct” them. They insist that they know what they are talking about.
A final warning Nielsen makes in his article – and repeats in the interview – is that these women do not have an explicit feminist agenda. They are not going on the Internet to demand an end to patriarchy, nor for gender equality. In fact, they take a stand against what someone in the United States or Brazil means by feminism. This does not mean that their activity does not have an impact on their companies.
“Women’s empowerment is always political. Even when they enter a space saying that they don’t do politics, they transform the politics of that space, ”he said. After all, these online preachers can change – even if bit by bit – the idea of women’s political authority in Islam. This opens the way for new debates.