are proving themselves a force to be reckoned with on Arab satellite
TV channels, preaching head-to-head with men in shows dedicated
to religious debate.
Appearing on such
channels as Dream, Orbit, Iqra, ART, MBC, and Al Jazeera, these
preachers often issue religious rulings (fatwas) on the air
and address queries raised by callers, most of whom are women.
In addition to their involvement in religiously oriented TV
shows, female missionaries also are hosted by talk shows to
deliver an Islamic perspective on the most controversial social
issues of the day.
According to Asef
Bayat, academic director of the International Institute for
the Study of Islam in the Modern World at Leiden University
in the Netherlands, this phenomenon reflects the democratization
of the religious discourse.
are an interesting phenomenon," Bayat said. "For one
thing, it means religious authority has become, or is becoming,
fragmented. It seems that it is no longer the monopoly of a
few, but many have begun to instruct and give religious views.
Especially with the advent of new technology, by which I mean
the Internet, etc., this phenomenon has gained even more currency.
Potentially this could lead to a democratization of religious
Bayat was apprehensive,
however, that divergent views might confuse the masses.
"It also could
lead to much uncertainty and chaos, especially when laymen,
or people of faith, get confused as to whose edict is correct,
and who to follow," Bayat added.
He nevertheless hails
the inclusion of women within the spiritual realm as an "interesting
phenomenon," explaining that it should shed more light
on women's issues.
"For the most
part women have been excluded from this prerogative, but now
they are gaining," he said. "Of course women preachers
can be very conservative or anti-feminist, etc. But this is
not the point; the point is that non-conservative women can
also enter into the realm of spiritual leadership, and so can
put forward issues that are central to women particularly."
In Egypt, this new
phenomenon is spearheaded by three names: Soad Saleh, dean of
al-Azhar's School of Islamic Studies in Cairo, Abla al-Kahlawy,
dean of the same school's Port Said branch, and Malaka Zerar,
a non-Azharite PhD holder in shari'a (Islamic Law) and Positive
TBS interviewed Zerar,
who has become widely known for her daring views. Always dressed
in black cloth that covers all of her body except her face,
the outspoken woman has broken many social taboos by discussing
issues such as women's sexual rights.
Zerar, 60, was born
into a Nubian family that migrated to Cairo's Abdeen quarter
in the 1930s. She admits that she was highly influenced by her
father who groomed her to become a da'iya or Muslim missionary
since she was a child. "I grew up in a house where the
main custodian observed God's commandments and adhered to the
Qur'an and the Prophet's sunna (practice). That was my father
who prepared me to become a preacher. He taught me how to explain
to my classmates, using simple words, that they had an obligation
to pray," says Zerar.
Zerar received her
BA in shari'a (Islamic Law) and Law from Cairo University
in the late 1960s. Staring in 1982, she pursued post-graduate
studies, receiving a PhD in the same discipline in 1995 with
a dissertation devoted to the study of the legal parameters
of woman's obedience to man in monotheistic religions and ancient
civilizations. Upon her graduation, she was hired as a faculty
member at one of the municipal branches of Cairo University.
However, she resigned and traveled to nurse her sick husband,
who was working at the time in Saudi Arabia. During her stay
there, she taught shari'a in Saudi universities for three years
and started compiling her encyclopedia on legal stipulations
regarding the marital relationship in Islam, Christianity, Judaism,
and ancient and contemporary civilizations.
Commenting on women's
recent involvement in media shows, Zerar insists that Muslim
women have a religious obligation to encourage good and forbid
Her first appearance
on TV in the mid 1990s, when she expressed her opposition on
MBC to misyar marriage, an official but temporary marital
relationship condoned by several Saudi jurists. Her position
caused massive uproar in Saudi Arabia, recounts Zerar.
"You can imagine
the fury I faced because I dared to criticize them on their
own ground, basing my criticism on the Qur'an and the Prophet's
sunna," Zerar recalls. She says she subsequently faced
harassment that prompted her to return to Egypt.
Zerar perceives the
media as a tool she can rely on in her struggle against "masculine
"I want to use
the media in order to show the purity of Islam, especially in
what pertains to women's issues," says Zerar in a firm
tone. "All books of jurisprudence must be revised. While
they contain some valid opinions, they also contain views that
no Muslim can condone. Some of them, for example, stipulate
that the woman's body belongs to her husband. I would say, 'No!'
No human being has the right to posses a free person's body."
it is not true that a woman's vulva belongs to her husband and
that he has the right to have sexual intercourse with his wife
whenever he wants. In reality, sexual intercourse is a duty
governed by many regulations. They (men) are interpreting texts
in a way to sanctify woman's submissiveness to man," adds
Zerar, who expresses these views whenever hosted on TV.
has called on air for the imposition of legal sanctions against
men who seek better job opportunities abroad, leaving their
wives and children. Zerar explains that the shari'a grants Muslim
woman the right to divorce if her husband does not have sexual
intercourse with her for four consecutive months and ten days
for no religiously binding reason.
Lately, Zerar has
appeared in several shows to comment on the recent incident
where Amina Wadud, an African-American theologian, led Friday
congregational prayers in New York. Although she considers herself
a member in the Islamic feminist movement, Zerar has rejected
Wadud's act as a clear violation of shari'a.
Zerar has been hosted
several times by 'Amma Yatasa'alun or "What They
(Muslims) Inquire About," a popular live show on Egyptian
private satellite channel Dream TV that serves as a platform
to answer Muslim callers' queries. Zerar took part in one of
the show's most remarkable episodes, dedicated to a simulation
of the Islamic rite of ghusl (washing of the dead).
Standing in front
of a mannequin laid horizontally and covered with white sheets,
Zerar mimed the Islamic rites of the washing and wrapping of
the deceased. "The idea came to my mind after a person
called in and asked me a question about this ritual. My suggestion
to bring this mannequin was initially rejected as unacceptable,
but finally the channel agreed to air the simulation but restricted
to adult viewers. I was against that because everybody should
know about this beautiful ritual."
Despite her appearance on most Arab satellite channels, Zerar
complains that she has been boycotted by some shows owing to
her bold views and strongly-worded tone.
is required when we discuss religious issues or the teachings
of the Prophet (PBUH), even if some believe that these issues
should not be debated in public," says Zerar, dismissing
criticism that her discourse violates the code of Islamic modesty.
She believes that
the media is still dominated by voices of dogmatism. "If
we are given the chance, the media could play an effective role
but the opportunities are given to those who abide by traditionalism
and the dogmatic thinking imposed by al-Azhar," says Zerar.
Fascinated by the
Oprah Show, Zerar dreams of hosting a similar program to present
conflicting views on social taboos but from an Islamic perspective.
"We need to find solutions to our social problems and this
cannot be achieved unless cameras go beyond closed studios to
shoot what happens in reality: in court rooms, in households,
and in both the physical prisons and the figurative prison of
traditions," says Zerar.
She insists that
the success of such a show would depend on the level of freedom
of expression she would be assured.
Noha El-Hennawy is a journalist based in Cairo. She
works for Egypt Today magazine.
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