My first encounter with censorship was at an Islamic school. During one of the lessons, my teacher told us about the women who would suffer grave punishment after death. He mentioned that amongst them will be women who raised their voices. This, of course, piqued my interest because I came from a family of women who were loud by society’s standard. And if being loud would result in eternal damnation, I wanted to know more.
My teacher explained that women who raised their voices and those who are heard outside of their homes would be deformed in their graves. And upon resurrection, their heads would be like those of animals. I couldn’t believe or accept that I and all other loud women, on account of being loud, would suffer such humiliation after death. I wanted to ask about the men and what would become of the loud ones amongst them. But, at that time, I did not have the courage that I have now.
I dropped out of Islamic school shortly after this lesson because the school had become a place where I did not feel welcome or included.
Most Muslim scholars who have been at the forefront of Islamic scholarship, ensure that women are excluded from public discourse either through issuing fatwas that uphold patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an or by hiding important aspects of history which involves women assuming active roles in the public sphere. The need to understand my role as a Muslim woman through the Qur’an, and most especially, through the legacy of women scholars, led me on a journey of research. I was shocked to discover a true story of censorship based on the insecurity of a few men.
In his book titled, Alhan Min Al-Sama (Melodies of Heaven), a journalist and writer, Mahmoud Al-Saedany, chronicled many stories about Egyptian Qur’an reciters and the effect their recitations had on the world. One story that stuck out the most for me (among many others like that of Sheikha Nabawiya, Sheikha Umm Muhammad, Sheikha Umm Al-Saad etc. ) was the story of Sheikha Munira Abdou who was nicknamed “angel-voice” back in the 20s.
In 1920, a blind 18-year-old girl named Munira Abdou began to recite the Qur’an. Her voice was magnificent. At the time, funerals lasted 6 days, filled with mourning; 3 days for the men and 3 days dedicated for the women. Only blind men or women reciters were allowed to recite during the women’s days. Most suitably, Munira was both blind and a woman. She would attend funerals and be paid to recite the Qur’an. Her voice was so beautiful that on one occasion, one of the wealthiest merchants in Tunisia offered Munira a very large sum of money to travel to the coastal city of Sfax during the month of Ramadan to recite the Quran for him in his estate. When Sheikha Munira turned down the offer, the merchant was said to have traveled around Egypt during the entire month of Ramadan so he could hear her recitation. She was an equal match to renowned reciters like Sheikh Mohamed Refaat.
In the 20th century, just before World War II, there were many great women Qur’an reciters on the radio in North Africa. A few of them were teachers to male scholars who rose to unprecedented fame while the women were forced into early retirement.
In the online magazine, Scene Arabia, an article titled “Her Voice Wasn’t Awrah”, notes that between 1920 and 1940, women were rallying for rights in Egypt. Huda Al Shaarawi, one of Egypt’s famous leading activists in the feminist movement founded the Egyptian Feminist Union. Iconic feminists such as Nabawiya Moussa, the first female student to graduate high school in 1907 fought alongside Huda Al Shaarawi for greater access to education. In 1929, a small cohort of women attended the King Fouad University for the first time, and in 1932 the country saw its first female surgeon, Kawkab Hefny Nassef.
Although, Western education for women was not a priority for most rural families, there were traditional Islamiyyahs and the Qur’an reciters were educated and trained withiin the traditional system of education. In Circa 1934, when the Egyptian Radio was launched, Sheikha Munira at the age of 32 became the first female reciter. Although she was paid only half of what her male counterparts on the radio earned, it was still a considerable amount at the time. She was on the radio, earning a living. Soon, she was broadcasted on London and Paris radio stations. She was nominated for many prestigious awards, on par with famous male reciters. Just before World War II; male sheikhs at Al Azhar University in Cairo, (the misogyny and patriarchy King pins I personally call them), issued fatwas claiming that women’s voices were a form of awrah (nakedness, defectiveness, imperfection), and that women could not be broadcasted reciting the holy words of the Quran.
Technology had allowed women’s voices to be heard far and wide. In retaliation, the patriarchy did what the patriarchy does best. It fought and rallied for the disappearance of women. Many fans of female reciters and other female Sheikhas protested against the fatwa but to no avail. Radio stations soon stopped playing Sheikha Munira and other Shiekhas’ recitations. The Sheikhs refused to rescind their fatwa even though some scholars saw it as a form of intellectual regression. Unfortunately today, due to the actions of a few insecure men, women reciters are no longer heard on the radio.
There is a recurring theme of censorship and disregard for the voices of women that has existed for centuries across the Muslim world. It is not Islam that has imposed silence on women, rather, it is men, the custodians of the tradition of Islam who decided, without any input from Muslim women that we needed to be kept silent.
A lot of things are changing for Muslim women. women scholars of Islam have walked so we, the younger generation of Muslims can fly. However, this legacy of women reciters cannot be eradicated. I recently watched a clip of Madinah Javed, a young Muslim woman reciting the Qur’an in the Scottish Parliament. At some point, the patriarchy is going to realise that the message of Muhammad (S.A.W) is a message for all of mankind, a message written, for all believers women and men.
1. Mahmoud Al-Saedany. Alhan Min Al-Sama (Melodies From Heaven/Hymns From Paradise).1996. Cairo, Egypt
2. Scene Arabia. Her Voice Wasn’t Awrah: Meet Sheikha Munira Abdou, Egypt’s First Radio Quran Reciter. 14 June 2020.
3. From Umm Muhammad to Sheikha Karima .. Voices of Women in the History of Quran Recitation. 5 April 2020.
- Asma’u Shaheedah is a Software Engineering Team Lead at Coamana and also works with Andela as part of a distributed team of engineers. She enjoys drinking tea, listening to music and going on adventures. As an avid reader and a life-long student, it is no coincidence that she is a writer and teacher.