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Egyptian project targets female preachers

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Earlier session for raising awareness of women's rights among women, organised by ACCDL and held by a male preacher. Photo: ACCDL

Earlier session for raising awareness of women's rights among women, organised by ACCDL and held by a male preacher. Photo: ACCDL

In Egypt, Muslim women preachers often have a lot of influence over ordinary religious women. Therefore, the Arabian Company for Consultancy, Development and Law (ACCDL) decided to target this group with a project on women’s rights as part of a moderate Sharia view.    

With the rising discussion about the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s parliament in the wake of the 25 Jan. Revolution, 2011, another discussion rises on the political Islam and its implications on the Egyptian people, which faces key social and economical challenges.

Women face even greater obstacles like a high rate of illiteracy, domestic violence, sexual harassment and lack of economical empowerment. At the same time the legal system doesn’t fully support women’s rights as women have a limited influence over it, say women’s rights groups. Hence, ACCDL decided to act upon and tackle women’s issues through a religious perspective.

Religious perspective on women’s issues

With a project titled Muslims Sisters – Issues between the Conservative Thought and Shari’a, ACCDL addresses women’s issues from a religious perspective. It targets female religious preachers at mosques and in religious circles, important places where women gather. This is also were women turn for advice on religious issues.

The idea of this project was born in the wake of the 25 Jan Egyptian revolution in 2011 and the raise of the Muslim Brotherhood political party in the parliament. Its members have generally focused on excluding women in their statements and decisions and have also attempted to ban laws related to women’s rights, claiming that they were the product of the corrupt previous regime.

As a reaction to this, ACCDL had several meetings with Sharia experts to investigate Sharia’s take on women’s issues. “In those meetings, ACCDL found out that the claims the Muslim brotherhood are making are just an absolute patriarchal point of view that doesn’t belong to Sharia laws or Islam. In fact, the Islam religion is one of the most women friendly religions and supports women’s rights” says ACCDL’s Executive Manager, Hala Abdelqader.

“However, especially among poor and illiterate women, there is a lack of awareness of women’s rights based on a gender perspective and their rights mentioned in the international agreements that Egypt has signed”.

Biggest influence on women

So, in order to support women’s rights ACCDL last year held several training courses for religious preachers and imams about women’s issues from a moderate Sharia point of view. During these courses, the organisation realized that female religious preachers are the ones who have the most contact with women at mosques, and thereby also have the biggest influence on women.

“Those female preachers provide a sanctuary for many women, but they also lack in understanding of women’s issues. So, we decided to target them directly with trainings and meetings to raise their awareness with regards to human rights and women’s rights and to show that Sharia laws don’t contradict with women’s rights” says Hala Abdelqader.

Hala Abdelqader believes that it is important to work with women’s issues through the religious female preachers as a way to influence larger audiences.

“In Egypt, especially in areas where illiteracy, poverty and lack of awareness prevail, like the Imbaba area where ACCDL is located, female preachers have a huge influence on women. We have heard from many women that the female religious preachers are their main reference for advice. For example, a woman would turn to a preacher regarding personal affairs between her and her husband, and she takes her advice as the constitution between her and her husband. Accordingly, if problems occur the wife would insist on sticking to the religious preacher’s words and the marriage might end in a divorce. To that extent, the preachers have an influence over the women. Usually the preachers are illiterate and their competence is only that of reciting the Quran after memorizing it through listening. Still, they give religious advice, which usually is very backward, on social, financial and political matters.”

Sensitive area

According to Hala Abdelqader religion is a sensitive area for many Egyptians, and prevailing attitudes that suppress women and reject gender equality are further fuelled by illiteracy and a lack of awareness. ACCDL hopes that it will be able to dispel some of the myths surrounding women’s rights and Islam.

And their Muslim sister’s project has been successful. About 175 Muslim women preachers participated in the training and a large number of them showed changes in attitude and behavior towards women’s rights. ACCDL mentions some concrete examples in its evaluation of the project:

”Many of the preachers were also keen to volunteer work with us or transfer to us cases of family violence of women in need to listen or adopt their issues; others asked for advice on how to deal with issues of women who are frequent visitors to mosques from legal and social perspectives, and many of preachers asked us about the list of activities we offer to attend with us and actively participate therein.”

“The dialogue was about the referendum, they completely refused to talk about the referendum or the President as they largely support him, but with the end of the training three of them started, with the assistance of their husbands, to invite the villagers to work on claiming women’s rights in the new constitution. They admitted that before the training they were lacking the awareness and it led them to maintain and defend the Constitution as it is, but after the dialogues they admitted that their opinions have been changed and they would lead a campaign within mosques to discuss women’s rights in the Constitution.”

“There was a preacher who attended at the first meeting on participation of women in public life and she was refusing everything we were saying to the extent that she attacked the project coordinator and accused her of being bias to anti Islam movements. But with continuous dialogues and communication, she adopted an idea of forming a complete group of mosque preachers that she knows personally. She composed a group of 23 preachers and supervised their training and participation with them. She invited as well the project coordinator to deliver lectures at the mosque where she works and they agreed thereon.”

With this good result in mind, ACCDL is now planning a new series of trainings.

Afrah Nasser/
Edited by: Malin Ekerstedt