Egypt appoints female imams to help fight extremism
Egypt is trying a new tactic to prevent extremist groups fighting the Egyptian state from winning women to their side.
The Egyptian Religious Endowments Ministry, which supervises the country’s 108,000 mosques, said the plan includes appointing female preachers for the first time to teach women about moderate Islam.
“Women are falling prey to radical groups and the new measure aims to protect them against this,” said Sayed Abdel Maaboud, the ministry official responsible for preaching affairs. “The new female imams will give women correct religious information and teach them the right principles of their religion.”
A decision by Abdel Maaboud’s department in early February to appoint 144 female imams is to be followed by the appointment of women to preaching positions at mosques.
Egypt’s ultra-orthodox Salafists and the country’s Muslim Brotherhood control hundreds of mosques, especially in the coastal city of Alexandria, the Nile Delta and southern Egypt. The Religious Endowments Ministry has been struggling to take control of those mosques from those groups, accusing them of promoting radical ideas.
Egypt’s Salafists speak against interaction with the country’s Christian minority, the appointment of non-Muslims to top government positions and the presence of churches. The Muslim Brotherhood has been accused of attacking police and army officers in Cairo.
The ministry’s appointment of women, however, is less about mosque control and more about Egypt’s war against extremism.
Apart from its crackdown on the Brotherhood, its efforts to defang the Salafists and repeated attempts to reform religious discourse, Egypt has changed the school curriculum. Such a move, the government says, aims to bring up a new generation of peace-loving citizens immune to radicalisation.
The change to the education curriculum followed repeated calls by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for religious institutions to reform discourse and target the intellectual basis of radical thinking.
The female preachers are to be sent to mosques frequented by large numbers of women from early March with a list of topics to discuss, including moderation, tolerance and the peaceful nature of the Islamic religion.
They will also talk about the Islamic viewpoint of social issues, including the duties of married women towards their husbands and children, child upbringing and the duties of women in society.
“The presence of these female preachers in the mosques will help the authorities tighten the noose around extremist groups,” said Amna Nosseir, a professor of Islamic philosophy at al-Azhar University. “These groups are having growing influence on the nation’s women, which must come to an end.”
Women have been caught in the middle of Egypt’s war against takfiri groups, especially in Sinai.
Security agencies said Bedouin women are used by an Islamic State-linked group fighting the Egyptian Army in Sinai to collect information about checkpoints and police posts. In more than one incident, however, militants executed Bedouin women after accusing them of spying for the army.
The 144 women appointed as mosque preachers will account for a very small part of Egypt’s male-dominated preaching world. There are 55,000 licensed male mosque preachers in Egypt.
For decades, Egypt’s mosques, which have separate praying space for women, had male imams only. Al-Azhar, the Sunni world’s highest seat of learning, is dominated by men. The Islamic Research Academy, the most senior body and the intellectual brain of al-Azhar, is also dominated by men.
While there are women judges, lawyers, schoolteachers, doctors and ministers and 15% of Egypt’s 630 parliamentary seats are occupied by women, this is the first time there will be women preachers.
Women’s rights groups and Egypt’s National Women Council hailed the appointment of female imams as an “achievement”, a “precedent” and a “harbinger” of women’s emancipation.
“This is a great step,” said council President Maya Morsi. “I am sure women will prove themselves as mosque imams and be a very useful tool against extremism. After all, these are the society members who bring up the country’s next generation of citizens.”
Ibrahim Ouf is an Egyptian journalist based in Cairo.