By Shaista Gohir

Last month, the theme for International Women’s Day 2022 was breaking the bias. Muslim women have broken the bias throughout their history and continue to do so in many ways. Maryam Amir launching her new Woman Quran Reciters app (Qariah) during Ramadan is yet another example of women literally finding their voice. When I found out about it, my first thought was, about time!

The Qariah App is such a fantastic and much needed initiative.I remember when I brought my mother-in-law a ‘Quran Speaker’ for her birthday and she was choosing which reciter she wanted to listen to (from a list of a dozen or so) - all were male. I was naturally disappointed but obviously not surprised at the absence of female reciters. The new Qariah app therefore fills a much-needed gap for those who want to listen to women. The app contains voices of more than 60 Qariahs (female Quran reciters) from South East Asia, Africa, Europe and the US. A few of them have disabilities such as blindness and Down Syndrome. To gather the voice of such diverse women is a remarkable achievement.

This is an important initiative because it is trying to change the perception and stigma associated with women reciting the Quran publicly...

The launch if this app is timely because Sottish born, Madina Javed, who is currently based in the US, is leading a #FemaleReciters movement to encourage and inspire public female Quran recitations. This is an important initiative because it is trying to change the perception and stigma associated with women reciting the Quran publicly- Muslim communities in Western countries currently tend to have more regressive attitudes towards this compared to Muslim majority countries. Such mind-sets are often cultural and also heavily influenced by very conservative male imams and scholars. I have attended many events where a slot has been provided has been provided for a Quran recitation - the reciter has always been male. Even during interfaith mainstream events, non-Muslim organisations have also chosen male reciters. They could push the envelope a bit and request a Muslim woman to do it but not wanting to offend they always stick to the safe option.

I am proud to say that at Muslim Women’s Network UK annual events, we have for many years made a point of having a woman reciting verses from the Quran. This has been deliberate so that women doing public recitations is no longer viewed as something that is taboo. This was the idea of Faeeza Vaid(who was the Executive Director up until 2021 and is now a trustee), who herself would do the recitation, which were always well received. The positive reception led to author, Sumayya Lee, also reciting verses from the Quran at our 2018 Annual General Meeting held at Portcullis House, Westminster. Although our events are attended predominantly by women, I hope to see female recitation also normalised at mixed events.

there has got to be something seriously wrong with men who get sexually excited at women’s voices that are reciting God’s words...

Critics who regard women’s voice as ‘awarah,’ (i.e. something intimate that therefore needs to be hidden from men), should consider this –there has got to be something seriously wrong with men who get sexually excited at women’s voices that are reciting God’s words. In fact, such attitudes do a disservice to men as I think they are unlikely to be affected in this manner. This is just another excuse to prevent women from having any influence in the religious sphere. It is this type of misogyny that resulted in the decline of female scholarship through the centuries after the death of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). There is historical evidence of women who were experts in Islam who taught men who then later also became experts. Women also recited the Quran publicly including during the time of Prophet (pbuh). For example, Umm Waraqa, was amongst the few who had memorised the entire Quran and her recitations heard publicly and appreciated. Unfortunately, hard-line male scholars later regarded women’s voice was her ‘awrah’ (despite there be no Islamic justification for doing so), which led to women disappearing from public life.

Muslim women started to find their voice again in the early 20thcentury. For example, Al Shaykha Munira Abduh and Al Shaykha Karima Al Adiliyya became famous reciters of the Quran in Egypt, whose recitations were frequently broadcast over Egyptian radio through the 1930s. Although this didn’t last long due to ‘fatwas’ by Egyptian scholars deeming women’s voice as ‘awrah’ yet again, Islamic scholars based in South East countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia seemed to have more positive positions on Qariahs. For example, The International Quran Recital Competition was launched in Malaysian in 1961, in which women were also allowed to participate (although the women’s category was not introduced until 1964). This competition still continues until this day and women reciting the Quran publicly is not considered unusual. For example, in Indonesia, it is common for women to reciting the Quran on television and in conferences. Maria Ulfah who is one of Indonesia’s most renowned Qariahs who is renowned internationally and winner of various competitions. She has been a driving force for change in reviving the art of female Quran recitation in the region.

A change in attitude amongst some male scholars in Egypt has also seen a revival of Qariahs once again in the country. Last year, (following her win at the global Quran reciters competition), 18-year-old Zahraa Helmy recited the Quran in the presence of President Sisi at the opening of the World Conference of the Islamic World Organization. She became the first female to do such a recitation in a high-profile international public conference. Similarly, Tahera Ahmed delivered a Quran recitation to open the 50th annual Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) national convention on August 30, 2013, becoming the very first woman to do so at one their events.

The mindsets of the diaspora Muslim communities in the UK clearly have some catching up to do. I look forward to seeing women be inspired to recite the Quran in public settings whether at events or by sharing their recitations through online platforms. I don’t want Muslim women to stop just there - I want to see the emergence of female nasheed artists in every country, who also become just as popular as the male nasheed singers and groups.

Anyone wanting to share their videos on Quran recitations can do so this website, MWN Hub by contacting the editors.

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