Egyptian Women Hanging out in Mosques

I came across an interesting Associated Press article a couple of days ago titled Egyptian women break new ground at the mosque by Canadian journalist Hadeel Al-Shalchi.

The article discusses how Egyptian women are beginning to not only frequent mosques more, but to use their time there to socialize, learn about Islam, and participate in community work.

All in all, it was a pretty solid article, and Al-Shalchi does a good job of discussing the ways women have increased their participation in the mosque. It isn’t a revolutionary thing they’re doing, though you get the feeling that’s what she’s telling us, but it’s interesting to note.

I particularly like how the story isn’t written in an “Oh my God, these women are doing something so incredible!” Instead, it’s written as it is: a natural progression resulting from “increasing religiosity” in Egypt, and of more women in Egypt (Muslim and non-Muslim) going ‘outside’ the home more and more to study and work.

(Although was it really necessary to say that women who used to come to the mosques/ shrines only prayed for “marriage, pregnancy [and] good grades for their children?” None of them were praying for a career or to be a better Muslim or a better person?)

Anyway, as Al-Shalchi points out:

More women want to engage in public prayer, increase their knowledge of Islam and do volunteer work in the community. Many Egyptian women already have had to balance their traditional place in the home with public roles at universities and jobs, so they tend to ask, “Why not a place in the mosque as well?”

The focus on the article is Muslim women in mosques, but Al-Shalchi does a good job of balancing the fact that it’s both a realization “that their faith allowed them to [enter mosques],” and a development in the Egyptian culture that has allowed women to visit mosques more often. Plus, she manages to make it clear that women aren’t only going to the mosques to pray, they’re going to engage more in their communities.

However, Al-Shalchi does only talk mainly about one mosque, Al-Sedeeq, one where:

Up to a 1,000 women may show up for the Quran lessons or twice-weekly religious lectures by women. On any given day, several hundred women buzz around the mosque, organizing clothing drives, cooking meals for the poor or teaching women to read. Al-Sedeeq also has medical clinics and a day care center for children of women who do volunteer work at the mosque.

And although she does point out though that this mosque is “one of the most dramatic examples of women taking a bigger role,” you may be left thinking a lot of mosques are like this, when this may not be true. A lot of other mosques, especially outside of Cairo, aren’t so welcoming of women.

Egypt is one of the most progressive nations in the Middle East on the issue of women attending mosques.

I would have perhaps liked to see a contrast with other nations here, more explaining on why Egypt is “one of the most progressive nations,” and what exactly that means—is it only in terms of available prayer space?

The only statement I had major qualms about was:

These women aren’t Western-style feminists seeking to change the faith’s teachings on women.

As if western-style feminists’ aim is to change Islam’s teachings on women, and not patriarchal interpretations of the faith.

I liked the juxtaposition of a female scholar encouraging women to stay at home and a male scholar saying women should be out and about. A nice touch to show diversity of thought, as well as the fact that supporters of women going to mosques aren’t always women and detractors aren’t always men.

Egyptian Muslim women perform Eid al-Adha prayers, or the Feast of Sacrifice in Cairo, Egypt. AP Photo/Mohamad Al Sehety
Egyptian Muslim women perform Eid al-Adha prayers, or the Feast of Sacrifice in Cairo, Egypt. AP Photo/Mohamad Al Sehety

The art chosen for this story was also suitable. Pictured leftis one of the photos, women praying dressed in all colors and types of dress. Another photo (pictured below right) showed women in niqab (face veil) at a mosque, and another showed them dressed in white scarves and normal clothes studying. A good combination.

Somehow, the following day, I stumbled upon an article on that quoted Al-Shalchi’s article.

The website name should give you some indication of how they tackled the article. And the fact that they titled the article Egyptian Women Take Mosques By Storm – In a Good Way.

Ignoring the fact that they slightly plagiarized Al-Shalchi’s article, they painted the fact that women were visiting mosques more as a pioneering “women’s movement.” The female scholar who Al-Shalchi quoted as saying women should stay at home is quoted again here, as a critic of the movement. The male scholar who said they should go to the mosque is conveniently left out.

The women who go to the mosques are lumped together as “housewives” who “take care of the husbands and kids.”

But don’t be mistaken. This is not necessarily a case of Egyptian women trying to break free of their religion, but rather them trying to worship and practice more publicly.

Egyptian Muslim women study Islamic lessons at Al-Azhar Mosque, the highest Islamic Sunni institution (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
Egyptian Muslim women study Islamic lessons at Al-Azhar Mosque, the highest Islamic Sunni institution. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Basically, the article attempts to position the ‘movement’ as one were the housewives are consciously making a stand, making their voices heard! with critics trying to shut them up while they struggle valiantly for their rights, ‘storming’ and ‘taking on’ the mosques. No mention is made that there are many accommodating male mosque leaders who are supporters of women praying and participating in mosque activities.

Once again, it’s the poor Muslim women trying to navigate their way in a religion and society that’s intolerant. Oh, and by the way, the article adds, in case you thought this was an Egyptian problem, it’s not: a lot of Muslims try and keep women out of the mosque or *gasp* separated, “even here in the United States.”

They then go ahead and quote Asra Nomani as saying:

Intolerance toward women is like the canary in the coal mine for intolerance toward other people. When you allow sexism to go unchallenged, you allow bin Laden-type mentalities to go unchallenged. That’s why it’s so vital that the expression of Islam in the world be one that is completely affirming of women’s rights.

So how is that talking about Egyptian women participating more in their communities? Oh yeah, it isn’t. It’s just an excuse to spout platitudes about Islam’s intolerance towards women.

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