A fresh row has erupted between the government and parliament in the tiny Gulf state of Bahrain. The Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs is being held to task for the recruitment of four female prayer criers (muezzins). In the conservative nation, Islamic theology and women's labor rights are making for a problematic partnership.
"This is Un-Islamic," Shaikh Jassim Al Saidi, a prominent Bahraini member of parliament proclaimed, armed with a Mosque's payroll, which included the names of four women in the muezzin category. During parliament's question time, the MP called for the resignation of the Minister on the grounds that according to Islamic principles women cannot hold religious positions at worshiping places.
In response, the Ministry claimed that on Al Saidi's list, dated November of last year, "the four women mentioned, worked as cleaners in the ladies' section of the mosque. They were not on the Ministry's payroll," and moreover it claimed "the females were given monthly awards and not salaries."
Yet Al Saidi has now threatened to use his parliamentary powers to question the Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies (Lower House). "This is a mere cover-up by the authorities," he said. "If things are not cleared I will pressure the Minister to resign from his post."
Munira Fakhro, a prominent women activist claims Al Saidi is missing the main point.
"This particular lawmaker has raised irrelevant issues rather than working on national problems. Now to publicize the issue, the MP wants to question the Minister in the House," she told Media Line.
Since Al-Saidi's campaign, a fatwa (religious edict) has been issued by Bahraini scholars banning women from leading prayers and asking women to respect Islamic values. Muslim hardliners say that women cannot lead men in prayers as the religious features of getting up, sitting and kneeling down during the prayers may be inappropriate for women in the presence of men.
This controversy is not the first time the debate over the role of women in Bahrain's mosques has made national headlines.
In 2004, a 40-year-old Bahraini woman, disguised as a man, wearing traditional white garb, along with fake beard, was arrested for trying to deliver a Friday sermon at one of the biggest mosques on the island. According to reports, she drew the suspicion of several worshippers among the 7,000 strong crowd moments before she was set to deliver the sermon.
Fatima Busandal, a religious educator argues that women can step in and call prayers in rare cases when there are no men or in war situations.
"Generally women should speak their issues within their groups without any men hearing their discussion. They have to lower their voice and speak to men in a straightforward manner," she told The Media Line.
Busandal said she backed Al Saidi and said even if there was a shortage of muezzins, training could have been provided to other men by the concerned authorities.
Busandal had declined several religious seminars and gatherings in camping and open areas, fearing men would hear her voice. "We regularly have gatherings at my house or societies which are attended by several women."
Similar views were echoed by Ishaaq Al Kooheji, Vice President of the Holy Quran Custody Society who said they conducted several activities for women who actively participated in their gatherings and took part in competitions.
Last month, the society organized a regional Quran Recitation contest that was attended by participants from Palestine, Iraq, India, Sudan and Algeria but no women took part in the contest.
"According to our belief, women cannot participate in such recitation contests as only men recite the holy book in such competitions, call for prayers, and lead the congregation," the society head said.
There are hopes a change in perception among government officials and hardliners is on the horizon. Advocates for Muslim Women's rights cite China's women-only mosque, and there are calls from advocates in India and other countries to build similar mosques for religious equality and to promote the health and education of women. But in Bahrain, it appears such moves will be a long time coming.