Women Preachers Join Religious Debate on Satellite TV
By Noha El-Hennawy

Female preachers 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.

"Female preachers 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 thought."

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 Law.

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.


Malaka 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 evil.

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 jurisprudence."

"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."

"Additionally, 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.

Zerar repeatedly 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.

"No modesty 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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