“A sane, adult and independent woman does not need a guardian,” that was part of the late Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah’s religious edict, or fatwa, on the occasion of Women’s anti-Violence Day last November. The ruling allowed women to use violence to defend themselves against domestic abuse.
Fadlallah’s fatwa provoked much criticism from conservative clerics and religious figures within the Shia community in Lebanon and elsewhere, especially those who consider women to be under the custody or guardianship of their husbands or fathers.
Fadlallah always believed in women’s independence and potential. But his value was that he had serious credibility among Shia, and it was this that meant he could change attitudes.
I’ve known this from a personal experience.
I was 21. I had just graduated from college, and did not want to go back to my village in the South. I got a job in Beirut and started to plant the first seeds of my independence. My father was not happy about me living alone in Beirut. “This is not a respectable girl’s lifestyle,” he told me many times, hoping I would listen to him and, fearing for my reputation, would come back home. I didn’t.
Then, my father, with the confidence of a guardian, and armed with the custody given to him by religion, ordered me to pack my things and come back. “If you don’t, then you can stay in Beirut, but you cannot step foot inside my house.” Those were his exact words.
Of course my father is not a typically religious man, but he is very traditional and like many others of his ilk, wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of the power granted to them by religion whenever they see fit, to control, for example, their daughters.
For two months, my father wouldn’t budge. I was living happily by myself in Beirut, but the rest of my family, especially my mother, were infuriated by the situation. She sought to overturn my father’s ruling and came up with a brilliant idea.
Soon after, a letter landed on my father’s lap. It told him that he had no right to tell me what to do, as I was an independent and sane and adult woman. It was signed Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.
So both my father and I realized that I had no guardian, that I was a free human being. Along the way, my mother also became conscious that she also is a free woman and not under my father’s custody. Her life also changed drastically after that; in a good way.
Since then, I have been able to visit my family anytime I want. Fadlallah’s letter said I could.
Aside from the personal story, I also understood that only figures like Fadlallah could change the status quo. People who position themselves as anti-Hezbollah, critics of resistance, or atheists, will rarely be heard within the Shia community because people will not listen to them. The Shia who support Hezbollah and those who practice religion with deep faith will be on the defensive when someone like me for example presents a different point of view and any conversation will go nowhere.
Fadlallah on the other hand could reach out to the people because he was one of them. He was a respected, esteemed and established religious leader who supported the Resistance. People listened to him.
But he also diverged from many of the established givens. He did not believe in Wilayat al-Faqih (or Guardianship of the Jurist) or Hezbollah’s organic relationship with Iran. He was a liberal Marja who wanted the Shia to be Lebanese first and foremost, and tried to modernize the community through his often controversial, but nonetheless deep-rooted, beliefs.
People like him, if strengthened, can bring about real change. He is one of those rare people whom Hezbollah and Iranian leadership feared. They feared him, attacked him and never recognized him as a Marja because people liked him and respected him. He was strong.
Today, Hezbollah will praise Fadlallah because he can no longer intimidate them. Before he died, he was not particularly their hero. Likewise, his followers were not big fans of Hezbollah. But Hezbollah will try to fill the void left by his death, and this started with his funeral where Hezbollah filled every available space between his house and the burial site at his mosque.
But a political party like Hezbollah cannot replace Fadlallah, because, simply, his significance lies in interpretations that went beyond politics and weapons. His learning offered the Shia a way of life that transcended sectarian tensions and political agendas. He offered intellectual debate and encouraged people to question.
Hezbollah offers a way of life that places the Shia right in the middle of regional and sectarian struggles. All social and cultural debate is snuffed out because the priority is the military struggle. The Shia in Lebanon should not ask questions or debate issues. According to Hezbollah, they must follow and blindly believe in the party and its doctrines.
When my grandmother stopped following Fadlallah and shifted to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, she turned into an arch conservative person. She lost interest in anything but religion and the speeches of Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. She started commenting on the length of my skirt and sleeves, whereas she used to be more interested in my studies and that new invention called “the computer.”
What happened to my grandmother? Well, Hezbollah happened.
Fadlallah was never a drastic liberal. He called for women’s rights, but within the limitations of Islam. Last year, I had the chance to meet Fadlallah for an interview. I went to his house in Haret Hreik in the southern suburbs of Beirut. I rushed there carrying my recorder, notebook and a list of questions for him. Of course, I forgot that I was still meeting a religious figure and was obliged to wear the veil.
Hanin Ghaddar is managing editor of NOW Lebanon.