Muslim women in
By Hadeel Al-Shalchi
The Associated Press
Monday, January 5, 2009
Up to 1,000 women may show up for the Koran 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.
All the activities are organized by women - not the mosque's administrators, who are men. On one recent day, the only men seen in the building were workers doing renovations and worshipers who popped in to perform one of the five daily prayers required by Islam.
It is a startling sight in
While men often socialize in mosques, women have traditionally been encouraged to practice their religion at home, where they can care for their children and husbands.
"When I was young, we wouldn't even go to pray in the mosque," said Khairy, the teacher. "It was a place for us to tour on holidays, like visitors."
Now, with religiosity increasing in
These women are not Western-style feminists seeking to change the faith's teachings on women. But their presence is challenging assumptions on women's place and turning some mosques into women-friendly social hubs.
While no statistics exist on the increasing number of
Egyptian women praying outside the home, several religious scholars in
Khairy is typical of much of the new breed of religious women. She is in her 50s; she studied engineering at a university, but rather than pursue a career, she married and stayed home to care for children. About 10 years ago, she wanted to deepen her faith, so she and a group of women started meeting in each other's homes to memorize the Koran.
More women joined the study circle, and several years ago
they began meeting at Al Sedeeq Mosque, which had just been built near
As hundreds of women from across
Al Sedeeq Mosque's administrators expanded its women's section to accommodate the volunteers. But not all are so welcoming.
Still, Egyptian women are often told, even by some female Islamic thinkers, that they should stay at home.
"The best place for a woman to pray remains her house," said one of them, Souad Saleh, who teaches at Al Azhar University, the pre-eminent Sunni Muslim institution for Islamic studies.
Mosque administrators are universally men, and many are reluctant to allocate greater space to women, saying that more men attend prayers. At most mosques, women must enter through side doors, and women's sections are not always air-conditioned or carpeted.
But Abdel-Moeti Bayoumi, a theology professor at Al Azhar University, said men must realize that times are changing.
"I always tell men that the days of locking up women away from society and useful work or study is backward and dangerous," he said. "It is not permitted in Islam to prevent a woman from praying in the mosque."
Najah Naji, a 22-year-old woman who tries to visit different
"Men feel like the leadership will be taken from underneath them," said Naji, who has memorized the Koran. "Even an educated man is raised with a mother who stayed at home and served his father, so he'd be worried I wouldn't be able to do the same for him. It's going to take a lot of time for that attitude to change."
Al Sedeeq Mosque is one of the most dramatic examples of women's taking a bigger role. More often, small groups of women make forays into modest neighborhood mosques.
At a tiny mosque tucked between apartment buildings near the Giza Pyramids on the outskirts of Greater Cairo, Hana Muhammad sits with a group of 12 older women. They cram into a small room every week to share stories, exchange news of grandchildren, vent about their lives at home and recite the Koran.
"The mosque is a softer place now that women have entered it," Muhammad said. "If a woman in need comes for help, she'd never knock on the door if only men were inside."
Members of Muhammad's circle said a woman with several university degrees and a career should not be told she cannot enter a mosque.
"Women started to force themselves on the mosque because they realized their faith allowed them to do so," Muhammad said. "It was a religious awakening. We understood we could do it, so we did."
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