President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih on Thursday nominated former judges Aisha Shujune Mohamed and Dr Azmiralda Zahir to the Supreme Court, sparking a backlash from religious scholars who contend that Islam prohibits women from serving as judges.
Shujune, who resigned from the civil court in 2014, was among the first two female judges appointed to the bench in 2007. A former dean of the faculty of shariah and law at the Maldives National University, Dr Azmiralda Zahir was the most senior female judge in the country until her resignation from the High Court in May 2016.
The nominees are expected to sail through as Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party controls a nearly three-quarters majority of the 87-member parliament.
Shujune and Azmiralda would become the first women to serve on the highest court since its inception in 2008.
Fierce debates have been raging online since the president’s announcement. Clerics condemned the move on Twitter and some shared an opinion issued by the fatwa council last month, in which the advisory body backed the view that women cannot pass judgment on criminal matters or property disputes.
There was a consensus among scholars of all sects of Islam that judges must be male, they said. Some scholars from the Hanafi sect say women can adjudicate civil matters and family disputes but most scholars do not agree with any exceptions, the council noted.
But former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, an Azhar-educated scholar, tweeted that several prominent scholars in the past have concluded that appointing female judges was permissible, naming Al-Tabari, Ibn Hazm, Hasanul Basri, Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, Abdul Kareem Zaidan and Saeed Ramadan.
Others pointed to women serving as judges in Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE as well as the appointment of the first female chief justice in Malaysia.
But local sheikhs were adamant that the appointments were contrary to Shariah and noted that the Maldives constitution prohibits the enactment of any law contrary to Islam.
Gender Minister Shidhatha Shareef – a leader of the religious conservative Adhaalath Party, which counts many scholars among its members – was among the first to welcome the president’s decision.
“This is a historic day,” she tweeted, calling on Maldivian women to stand for posts and offices at decision-making levels.
President Solih made the nominations after parliament amended the Judicature Act last month to increase the size of the Supreme Court bench from five to seven justices.
The president has the authority to appoint justices to the Supreme Court “after consulting the Judicial Service Commission and confirmation of the appointees by a majority of the members of the People’s Majlis present and voting,” according to the constitution.
At a meeting on Friday, the JSC decided to accept the nominees and make a recommendation to the president by Monday.
The JSC – a 10-member watchdog with representatives from the executive, legislature and judiciary – also invited interested candidates to apply before noon on Sunday.
I feel proud to be the first president of Maldives to have appointed a female judge 12 years ago, in keeping with Islamic principles of gender equality and promotion of women’s rights as equal partners in nation building.
— Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (@maumoonagayoom) August 24, 2019
Majority of scholars are of the view that it is not permissible for a woman to be appointed as a judge. Citing Qardawi with no real academic reference is not accepted any more. Dear @maumoonagayoom, bygone are the days of suppressing Islamic knowledge and oppressing Maldivians.
— 𝐒𝐡𝐤 𝐇𝐚𝐬𝐬𝐚𝐧 𝐌 𝐅𝐢𝐤𝐫𝐞𝐞 (@HassanFikree) August 23, 2019
In Ansar Burney v. Federation of Pakistan (1983), the Federal Shariat Court of Pakistan dismissed the challenge that women should not be appointed as Judges. pic.twitter.com/Jc5RkAOz8i
— Ali Hussain (@AleeVoice) August 23, 2019