Skip to main content

Egyptians remain leery of female wedding officiants

Despite progress on gender equality, seeing a woman officiating a wedding is still an odd sight for most Egyptians.
A bride and groom sit on a stage as a band plays music.

As Zeinab Sayed el-Qawashti, a 34-year-old Egyptian ma'azouna (female marriage officiant), was taking her seat at a table to officiate a wedding in Cairo about two months ago, someone came to her and said, “Please get up. This is where the ma’azoun (male marriage officiant) sits.”

“I'm the marriage officiant,” Qawashti replied while laughing.

But the man thought that she was kidding and repeated, “Please, get up.”

Qawashti said again, “I'm the officiant.”

It took Qawashti a while to convince him that she is actually the wedding officiant.

Qawashti is one of the few women working as a marriage registrar in Egypt, where this job has been held exclusively by men. Most Egyptians are still unfamiliar with the presence of a female marriage officiant and are often surprised when they see a woman officiating at a wedding.

In April 2021, Egypt's Minister of Justice Omar Marwan said in a statement that there are around 4,638 marriage officiants registered at the Ministry of Justice, 68 of whom are women.

The first female marriage officiant in Egypt is Amal Soliman from the Sharqia governorate some 75 kilometers north of Cairo. She was hired in 2008 by the Family Court in Sharqia. Since then, she has inspired other women to join this field, including Qawashti.

When Qawashti, a mother of three and who graduated from the faculty of Sharia and law at Al-Azhar University in 2013, spoke of her desire to become a ma'azouna, her family told her, “There are no female marriage officiants.”

“I searched on YouTube for female marriage officiants in Egypt, and I found one: Amal Soliman from Sharqia. I decided to take the step. I received support from my father and brother, who are marriage registrars too. My husband also encouraged me to pursue my dream. I went to the family court I'm registered in to see if there were open positions for marriage registrars I can apply to. By chance, I found a position and I applied in February 2018,” Qawashti told Al-Monitor.

“I was lucky. I had just turned 30 only 14 days before applying. The new ma'azoun law approved in 2014 states that the age of applicants should be between 30 and 40,” she said.

“The process of legally becoming a ma'azoun can take years. It can take more than seven years. The family court has to hire them via a court ruling, where they become eligible for their license. Thank God, it took me two and a half years to officially become a marriage registrar in September 2020,” Qawashti said. 

According to her, applicants for the job of ma'azoun in Egypt must have at least a bachelor’s degree. They should have no other jobs and must maintain their well-being. Priority is given to those who studied Sharia at Al-Azhar University and holders of higher degrees such as bachelor's, master's and PhDs.

Qawashti feels happy and confident while marrying couples. But the weird remarks she often receives from some people make her confused at times.

She recounts when a man told her that he needs to ask Dar al-Ifta, the official body for issuing religious fatwas, whether it was valid for a woman to officiate a wedding. 

In 2019, Dar al-Ifta issued a fatwa stressing it is permissible for women in Islam to undertake the profession of marriage registrar.

Qawashti has also been told many times that it is inappropriate for a woman to sit among men during the signing of the marriage certificates, which is traditionally a male gathering where the marriage registrar sits directly between the groom and the bride’s father.  

These types of comments have also been directed repeatedly at Soliman.

Soliman obtained a law degree from Zagazig University in 1998 and a masters’ degree in Sharia in 2005. In 2007, the ma'azoun of al-Kanayat neighborhood in Sharqia governorate died. That is when Soliman decided to officially submit the required paperwork to the Family Court to fill the vacant post.

“I thought that my [chances] were far from possible because it is a men-only job,” Soliman told Al-Monitor. But the unexpected happened. Although 11 men applied for the same position, Soliman was selected because of her valuable education certificates.

Soliman said that her documentation of the first marriage contract in October 2008 received extensive media coverage internationally and prompted other Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Palestine, to replicate the Egyptian experience and appoint women as wedding registrars.

“I was extremely happy. It was such an unusual event.” But she said her appointment raised eyebrows in Egyptian society.

Those opposed to her argued that she violated Sharia by becoming a ma’azouna. They questioned how she was going to sit among men while documenting the marriage or how she would place her hand over the hands of the groom and the bride's father. However, Soliman said that, according to Sharia, hand placement is not an actual requirement during Katb el-Ketab (the signing of the marriage contract). In fact, the ma’azoun isn’t required to touch anyone. This is only an Egyptian norm that became ingrained into the practice, she said.

Throughout her career as a ma’azouna over the past 13 years, Soliman also received strong backing from many people for breaking into a world that had been limited to men. She has documented more than 3,000 marriages since 2008. According to Soliman, one of the streets in al-Kanayat neighborhood where she lives has been named “Al-Ma’azouna” in her honor.

Both Qawashti and Soliman wish that female marriage registrars would be viewed normally like their male colleagues. But for that to happen, both noted that more and more women must join the field.