Do I get a manicure with this sermon?

Sociologist calls wave of female Muslim preachers "fashionable."

Published June 29, 2006 12:28PM (EDT)

Young Egyptians find themselves in a cultural rift between Muslim extremism and Western-brand pop culture. So, they're seeking out moderate religious leaders who speak their language; for many Muslim women, that's a woman. Yesterday, Reuters reported that, increasingly, women are becoming preachers in Egyptian mosques, as waves of young women search out accessible Muslim leaders.

This is all incredibly encouraging, but it bears mentioning that the response from the Muslim establishment to this boom of female preachers seems something akin to saying, "Have fun playing your girl games," while offering a sharp pat-pat on the head. Many suspect that women have been allowed to ascend to higher positions only because with such meager followings, they don't pose a real threat to the establishment. "If it doesn't embarrass the authorities they don't go looking. They know it happens but turn a blind eye," Masoud Sabry, a sharia law researcher, told Reuters.

Sociologists also say that the growing demand has led to many unqualified female leaders -- which, you'd think, should be taken as a measure of the accessibility of high-level religious training to women. I cringed reading this sociological translation of what seems women's attempt at seeking out their own brand of spiritual guidance: "This is partly socializing and partly a game, a good deal of the preaching has that dimension to it, so it becomes attractive to join them," sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim says. "To learn to be preachers themselves as well as recipients has also become fashionable."

What's more, rather than offering spiritual guidance, Ibrahim says, these female leaders fulfill a social need, and describes the gatherings as "the functional equivalent of ladies' bridge parties." But gratingly patronizing commentary like this makes the impetus for these gatherings that much more apparent: Where else can women find religious guidance that speaks to them if "women's issues" are taken as fare more appropriate for a beauty parlor than a mosque (or church, or synagogue)?

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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