Earlier this month a conference for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) was held in Cairo’s New Capital and attended by the Egyptian President. The theme was women empowerment. The conference was inaugurated by a woman reciting verses from the Quran with the aim of sending a message that women’s issues are central to the efforts for a renewed religious discourse, with women a vital cog to usher this progress.
As expected some were displeased with the sight of a confident and articulate woman reciting verses from the holy book. They claimed that her recital was a transgression on public propriety. That women should not reveal their voices in front of men, let alone recite the Quran. That a woman’s voice is ‘awra, that is, a private part that should be covered. The attacks were so vile that Dar Al Ifta issued a statement affirming that a woman’s voice is not ‘awra.
To a Western audience the entire issue might seem preposterous. Of course a woman can speak and shouldn’t be admonished for it, but the fascination with women’s voices spans beyond the confines of Islam. This fascination is evident in the mythical figure of the siren who lures men with her seductive voice. They submit to the serenade and inevitably perish. This notion is also evident in the children’s fairy tale the Mermaid, where the wicked witch steals the Mermaid’s voice to grant her legs so she can be with her beloved prince. A woman’s voice has always been perceived as a perilous emissary that can cause the destruction of men.
Accordingly, the solution was to keep women quiet.
I remember the first time I heard that a woman’s voice is ‘awra. I was attending an all-girl’s middle school at the time. We were in between classes and all the girls decided to engage in side chats that amounted to a symphony of discord that can pain the ears of even the most sympathetic and loving listener. The female religion teacher entered the class at this moment and announced that we should all be quiet. We all complied. After peace and quiet was restored to the classroom environment, she arched over and told us in a hushed muffle that “a girl should never raise her voice. A girl’s voice much like her body is ‘awra.”
I still remember how I felt that day. I felt oppressed by the teacher, by my sex, and definitely by my religion. I didn’t choose to be a girl, why should I be punished for it? I felt the authority of my teacher was compounded by the fact that she was a woman and that she silenced us in the name of religion. I couldn’t argue, I couldn’t question it and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was told that a good Muslim girl must be a mute. I felt the weight of my religion pressing against my chest, demanding that I keep my thoughts unarticulated because if they found expression within my bosom they might escape and be uttered. I felt shame, utter and all-encompassing shame of simply existing.
It took me quite some time to overcome my teacher’s tale. To see the truth that is mistakenly veiled in religious garment. To understand that being told that your voice is ‘awra is a tool to silence women, so as not to demand what is rightfully theirs. It took me some time to find my voice once more, to witness the process as thoughts take form into my chest and find their way to my lips so they can be released from their captivity. It took me even more time to find the strength and demand to be heard.
I was lucky, but sadly not all women are.
When society convinces young girls that it is forbidden for them to speak, they will grow to become muzzled women. Dar Al Ifta’s statement, as intuitive and as commonsensical as it is, is crucial. It took me some time to be able to say it. My voice is not ‘awra, and I am not ‘awra.