Source: The New York Times
By LIZ GOOCH
KUALA LUMPUR — Meet the latest in reality television, Malay style: 10 young contestants stride confidently onto a green-hued set, ready for their moment before a studio audience and viewers across the country.
But this is no trial by adventure, or a demand to sing and dance. These women in floor-length black skirts, their hair covered with brightly colored scarves, are competing to show superior knowledge of Islam and their ability to teach it to others.
While official religious leadership in this predominantly Muslim country has traditionally been male, women in Malaysia are carving out new roles, including that of female preacher. Now, television has taken up the theme, starting rival preaching contests on separate channels: “Solehah” (pious female in Arabic), and “Ustazah Pilihan” (ideal female preacher in Malay).
“We need women preachers, rather than men,” said Siti Adibah Zulkepli, 21, after her appearance on “Solehah.” “Because they don’t face what we are facing — health problems, how to manage the house, how to manage the children. The woman knows better.”
Women in many Muslim countries have been engaged in religious education behind the scenes. In Malaysia, where women are on the rise in business, politics and academia, the new television shows have shone a spotlight on women’s growing role in religious leadership.
The Malaysian Constitution both declares the country a secular state and specifies Sunni Islam as the official religion. Malays, the majority ethnic group, are automatically classified as Muslim by law. While the country has long been considered moderate in its approach to Islam, more conservative strains have taken root in recent years.
Still, Malaysian Muslim women enjoy greater freedom than many peers in the Middle East. In Malaysia, there is no gender segregation; women hold top positions in banks and other companies, and female university students now outnumber men.
“There are more women than men doing Islamic studies at the universities,” said Zaleha Kamaruddin, an Islamic scholar who in August became the first female rector of the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur.
Ms. Zaleha said Malaysia was now “reaping the fruits” of those enrollments, with an increasing number of women becoming Islamic studies lecturers. She said that it was rare for a woman to lead an Islamic university in the Muslim world, but that reaction to her appointment had so far been positive, with several speaking invitations from a surprising source: conservative Saudi Arabia, where female students are subject to strict gender segregation, and women are notoriously not allowed to drive.
“I think Malaysia has started to break the glass ceiling and is trying to be one of the modern Muslim countries,” Ms. Zaleha asserted.
If women are taking on more prominent roles in Islamic education in Malaysia, as they have in Morocco and Turkey, they are still barred from leading men, or mixed congregations, in prayer. While there have been instances of women leading prayers to congregations that include men in North America and Britain, in most Muslim countries, including Malaysia, it remains strictly taboo.
Yet, the contestants on the two television shows are certainly burnishing the image of female preachers here.
Contestants on “Solehah,” who are selected by auditions around the country, study Islam and get coaching in public speaking and personal grooming. During one recent episode, the women produced videos on high school drop-outs and acid attacks and were then asked to comment before a live studio audience on how these issues could be addressed, using Islamic references.
“Ustazah Pilihan” focuses more on a search for “muslimah,” or female Muslim role models. Modeled on a popular TV contest for male imams that premiered last year, it eliminates one contestant a week. Publicity material for the show stresses the “importance of assuming responsibilities as a Muslim woman, not only as a wife or mother but also as an educator, who can shape and nurture potential leaders of the future.”
Prizes have not yet been announced for either show.
Greg Barton, acting director of the Center for Islam and the Modern World at Monash University in Melbourne, who has studied the role of Muslim women around the world, said it would be a mistake to dismiss the significance of Malaysian women’s expanding engagement in Islamic education.
“There’s actually a lot more happening with women in a teaching role than you might think,” he said.
Despite the more conservative interpretations of Islam adopted in recent years, he noted, it is becoming more common for women to give devotional speeches to mixed groups during social gatherings. At such occasions, women often have more time and leeway to deliver their message than male imams who conduct Friday Prayer in mosques, he said.
Ms. Zaleha, the university rector, said she delivered academic lectures on Islam and sometimes led women in prayer in the women’s wing of the university mosque. But a male staff member — “my right-hand man,” she quipped— leads mixed congregations because it is forbidden for women to lead men in prayer, and only men are permitted to deliver the Friday Prayer and sermon.
Mr. Barton said that in neighboring Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-dominant country, women have been very active in large Islamic groups that boast millions of members.
“One wouldn’t think to go looking for feminists in such circles,” he said. “But I would suggest that a lot of important feminist concerns are being addressed by such women,” he added, citing women’s success in disseminating information about birth control and campaigns against polygamy.
Women in Indonesia and Turkey have been involved in public intellectual debates on Islam for decades, he said. Now, it appears, the demand for television content, especially content that appeals to women, has pushed this to the next level in Malaysia.
“Reality TV sells and religion sells in Malaysia,” he said. “Malaysian women are accustomed to enjoying wide success in professional life, and Malaysians view themselves as modern and progressive.”
He predicted that greater education in more conservative Arab countries would enhance women’s influence in Islam there, too. “Expect to see a lot of changes in the Arab world over the coming decade, including in Saudi and Yemen,” he said.
Harussani Zakaria, a mufti of the Malaysian state of Perak, said he welcomed the growing number of women teaching Islam, but he was adamant that women could not lead Friday Prayer in front of mixed congregations.
“They can preach Islam to the men,” he said, “ but they cannot lead the prayers for men.”
Ratna Osman, executive director of Sisters in Islam, a women’s advocacy group based in Kuala Lumpur, disagrees. She argues that, throughout the history of Islam, women, including Mohammed’s wife Aishah, have educated both men and women.
Ms. Ratna said that the new reality shows may encourage a more public role for women in Islam, yet both in many respects broadcast what she considered conservative messages about women’s subordination to men.
Ms. Ratna says that, when her husband was away and she prayed with her 17-year-old son at home, she recited the prayers — unusual in Malay households, where a son rarely follows his mother in prayer once he has reached puberty.
“I will lead the prayer because it’s just logic that I’m the more knowledgeable,” she said. “Why do I need to ask him to lead the prayer? Just because he’s a male? No, I will not take that.”
Source: The New York Times