Egypt fights extremism by allowing women to lead mosques

CAIRO, Egypt - Women attend Ramadan worship services at the historic Al Azhar mosque. Nearby Al Azhar University, the traditional seminary of mainline Sunni theology as well as the state-run Ministry of Religious Endowments are promoting women’s participation in preaching, mosque governance and liturgical music. (Photo: Mohamed Salah|ARA Network Inc.)CAIRO – Four years ago, President El Sisi called on state-supported clerics “to improve the image of Islam in front of the world.”

They listened.

And now, Islamic religious authorities here are doing so by allowing women to be heard, in in mosques and Muslim schools as preachers, part of governing boards and singers in choirs dedicated to liturgical music.

“These measures show that Islam can grow in an open encounter with other faiths,” said Wafaa Abdelsalam, a 38-year-old female physician appointed by the Ministry of Religious Endowments to give two sermons a week at a pair of influential mosques in the Cairo suburbs. “The audience for my Ramadan talks has been mostly upper middle-class women who until recently have felt they have had nobody to talk to about how Islam fits into their lives.”

About 70 percent of mosques in Egypt have separate prayer areas for women, according to the Endowments Ministry. But the move to introduce women preachers – called wa’ezzat in Arabic – is the first time females have formally addressed worshipers in these spaces as officially sanctioned clergy.

“Religious education here is a chance for women to ask me questions about personal matters, including marriage problems, and to debate the merits and drawbacks of the choice to wear or not wear the hijab headscarf,” said Abdelsalam.

The wa’ezzat were following sermon guidelines set by the Endowments Ministry, she added.

The push to promote women in Egypt's religious sphere -- backed by scholars at Al Azhar University, the traditional seminary of mainline Sunni theology -- arises from Egypt's fight against terrorism: El Sisi has challenged theologians to examine texts that have been used to justify terrorism.

Meanwhile, the Endowments Ministry -- which holds power over financial grants and clergy appointments in more than 110,000 mosques in this nation of 90 million Muslim and is at the forefront of a crackdown on extremism -- last month moved to ban unlicensed male preachers from delivering homilies in more than 20,000 storefront mosques known locally as zawyas.

Zawyya preachers have been suspected of propagating fundamentalist views among women as well as men to advance extremist beliefs.

“We can’t leave the field of Islamic women's education to non-specialists,” said Youmna Nasser, one of the new female preachers appointed by the government.

The ministry has trained around 300 female preachers in interpreting the Koran and other Muslim texts and public speaking.

Meanwhile, the Endowments Ministry plans to name two women to the governing boards of each mosque next month with the aim of boosting attention to issues related to females, children and the family in religious work.

“The steps we are taking now are to affirm women’s rights are based on principles recognized by Islam in the past but were neglected over time,” said Abdul Ghani Hindi, a member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs who said officials were currently training 2,000 more female preachers.

“True Islam strengthens the women's’ status which is why we started training courses for female preachers and are trying to find out more about women's views about how mosques are run,” said Hindi.

Another important shift toward expanding women’s voices is happening at Al Azhar University, which has grown beyond its original role as an Islamic seminary to provide general education in fields including medicine and engineering to more than 45,000 students in Cairo and at satellite campuses in seven provincial cities.

Bucking conservative fatwas prohibiting men from even listening to the sound of women singing, Al Azhar has formed a co-educational choir that performs Muslim spiritual hymns both on and off campus.

"My dad was afraid that people's views of me as religiously observant would change, and that neighbors would see me as deviating from the traditions of Islam," said Umniah Kamal, a 21-year-old business major at Al Azhar, who is part of the choir. “But my mom encouraged me to join the chorale and even suggested some of the religious songs we are performing.”

University officials insist that including young women in their college chorale will make Islam more relevant to a new generation.

“Those who say the chorale reduces Al-Azhar's image of piety are wrong,” said Ibtisam Zaidan, the university’s female artistic director. “We are using the performing arts to bolster Al-Azhar as a beacon of Islamic life and learning.”

“There is no text in the Quran that prohibits singing these songs," added Zaidan. “The young ladies dress conservatively, wear headscarves and stand separately from the young men during the performances.”

While the Al Azhar Chorale has won artistic accolades – they captured second place in an April competition hosted by Egypt’s Youth and Sports Ministry – the mixed gender performances and government appointments of women to leadership roles in mosques has stirred up opposition among traditionalists.

“Drafting women as public representatives on mosque directors boards, encouraging them to issue fatwas and the outrageous formation of that mixed gender musical team at Al-Azhar are all ideas imported from the West,” said Sameh Abdul Hamid, a Cairo preacher from the puritanical Salafist sect.

“It’s all part of an effort by Arab governments to erase our Islamic identity and disrespectful of our belief that the way to strengthen the status of women is to safeguard their position in their homes,” said Abdul Hamid.

A version of this story can be found in Religion News Service.
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