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Female preachers officially find their way to Egypt's pulpits

In a groundbreaking move, Egypt's Ministry of Religious Endowments has appointed 144 female preachers to deliver sermons to all-female congregations.
Egyptian Muslims perform Eid-al-Fitr prayers in front of Al Sultan Hassan and Al-Refaie mosques in the old Islamic area of Cairo, Egypt, July 17, 2015. Eid-al-Fitr marks the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh - RTX1KMW6

Egypt's Ministry of Religious Endowments recently announced the appointment of 144 female preachers who will take up their positions in the female-only sections of several prominent mosques starting in March. According to the ministry, this is the first step in activating female participation in preaching work, and more female preachers will be added in the future.

Egyptian mosques are segregated by gender, with separate areas allocated for women. The new female preachers will lecture exclusively to women on a wide range of topics twice a week. The aim of these sessions is to clear up misconceptions related to Islamic jurisprudence and to spread moderate thinking.

In January 2015, the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which regulates mosques and religious endowments, announced the addition of volunteer positions for female preachers in mosques. The 144 newly appointed female preachers are the first of their kind to ever be appointed by the ministry.

The female preachers will be graduates of the prestigious Al-Azhar University, with degrees in preaching or Islamic studies to ensure they abide by Al-Azhar's methodology. Egypt also has nine Islamic centers that are affiliated with the Ministry of Religious Endowments to help prepare the female preachers.

Abdel Nasser Balih, a senior official at the ministry, told Al-Monitor, "We already have female preachers who have been voluntarily working under the ministry's supervision for more than 10 years, but this is the first time to officially appoint them. It is a bold and wise decision."

Balih said women may be too shy to ask male preachers about female-specific edicts. As a result, women may turn to unreliable or extremist female preachers for advice. The presence of knowledgeable female preachers in mosques will eliminate such threats and will help women better understand their religion, he said.

The step to hire female preachers is part of the ministry's broader strategy to further tighten its control over Egyptian mosques. This comes in light of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's constant calls to regulate and renew religious discourse to combat terrorism. To bolster government oversight of mosques, the ministry previously announced that all imams should be graduates of Al-Azhar. The ministry also issued a controversial decision to unify Friday sermons nationwide in an attempt to uproot extremism.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been accused of exploiting women for political purposes and using them to publicize their views and gain more supporters. Despite these concerns, the work of female preachers in such mosques has always been off the radar. The unprecedented appointment of female preachers by the ministry, however, reflects the government's willingness to involve women in its anti-terrorism efforts.

"Right notions will be more accessible to women through female preachers," Balih said, adding that, on a professional level, there is no difference between male and female preachers.

Amr Hamroosh, a member of the parliamentary Committee of Religion, said the female preachers will help prevent Egyptian women from falling prey to fanatics who exploit ignorance and spoil minds with poisonous thoughts.

"All in all, it is too early to assess the entire experience," Hamroosh told Al-Monitor. "We have to wait. If this experience turns positive, it will be applied in all mosques, not only the premium ones."

Amna Nosseir, a member of parliament and a professor at Al-Azhar University, lauded the decision, emphasizing the necessity of periodically training and assessing the performance of female preachers to ensure the success of the whole experience. "Before getting involved in preaching work, the would-be female preachers should at least get a two-week training course on how to smartly and clearly answer peoples' questions and how to deal with critical issues," said Nosseir. "In this way, this experience will be highly fruitful."

Balih said preachers of both genders will receive regular training courses to improve their skills and refresh their minds. "Male and female preachers are equally in need of courses," he said.

Feminist and pro-women groups have expressed admiration for the decision to open the doors for female preachers. They considered the decision to be a practical application of Sisi's declaration that 2017 is the "year of women," especially since the decision came shortly before the appointment of Egypt's first female governor, Nadia Abdu.

Dina Hussein, a member of Egypt's National Council for Women, a state-run entity that defends women's rights, told Al-Monitor, "This reflects the political leadership's intention to pay special attention to women's rights. It is a good indicator that we are on track. It is the result of the yearslong efforts to enhance women's participation in society."

Hussein added that reviewing the thoughts of female preachers to avoid adverse consequences is also important. "The National Council for Women gives this issue a top priority," she said. "We have already held several meetings with officials at Al-Azhar and the Endowments Ministry to voice our concerns. They have agreed with us and pledged to thoroughly assess and monitor the preachers' performances within the framework of the government's plan to reform religious speech."

Hussein said that this year will witness more progress in the promotion of women's rights, since the National Council for Women has a comprehensive strategy to enable women to reach decision-making positions in Egypt. "Women should strongly make their way into all careers such as preaching, which is traditionally considered male-dominated," she said. "We will never lose hope."

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