Ramadan is a period during which Muslims across the world are deeply immersed in worship and are particularly attuned to exhortations by religious scholars.
In Kenya, Islamic public sermonising has traditionally been the domain of male clerics. However, according to my recent study, there is an emerging clique of female preachers engaging in this form of public participation through Muslim radio stations.
What explains this development? First, due to media liberalisation in the 1990s, numerous local FM radio stations were allowed to operate. These include those inclined to religious content. Second, this process of democratisation promoted a pluralism that embraced female articulations of religious doctrines and texts.
My study sought to examine this phenomenon, given that radio religious sermons are easily accessible to people lacking strong literacy and religious training. This has the potential of being the most attractive religious commodity to consume.
The study also explored the controversial status of the female voice as a medium of transmitting religious knowledge to the Muslim public. Here, I was interested in interrogating the role of the female voice as a means of expression and debates over authoritative public speech. The data led me to conclude that in spite of the limitations imposed by some conservative Islamic religious scholars, new forms of female religious authorities represent a significant development among Kenyan Muslims.
Though the Kenyan Muslim communities are generally biased towards women, there is increased public presence of women in radio programmes as a religious authority. This has raised their social reputation in society.
Why women have been excluded
Female Islamic authority in Kenya is restricted by the traditional gender customs also evident in other Muslim societies. Notwithstanding their level of Islamic knowledge, the general instructional role of women is restricted to the traditional Qur'anic school to teach to read and memorise the Qur’an. This explains why, historically, Muslim women were denied opportunities to pursue higher Islamic learning beyond the “essential” basics.
Even reputable early Muslim scholars in Kenya, like Sheikh Al-Amin Ali Mazrui and Sheikh Sayyid Ali Badawi did not make efforts to recruit and encourage women to advance their knowledge in Islamic education. What could have attributed to this scenario?
Historically, the male members of the society have occupied all the institutions of Islamic authority. These range from caliph, scholar, mufti, kadhi, Sufi Sheikh and mosque preacher. The male religious scholars regarded women to be unfit to qualify for these public positions because of their supposed ability to distract the attention of the males in their company.
These conservative restrictions led Azara Mudira, a leading female scholar who sought to feminise Islamic education in Kenya, to establish an advanced Islamic theological school for Muslim women in Kenya in 1987. Established in Nairobi, its mission is
to challenge the exclusionary male-centered tradition of advanced education in Islamic studies and
to create an alternative space for authoritative intervention by Muslim women Islamic scholars in the religious realm.
A few female preachers in Kenya have made their mark. One illustrious contemporary example is that of Nafisa Khitamy Badawi, who emerged as one of the highly respected female religious authorities in Kenya (and maybe the East African region).
Despite their advanced education, Muslim women are not mandated to speak in public. They must also not engage in a public disputation of religious matters. However, this notion is being put into question with the appearance of female preachers who offer lectures – mawaidha in Kiswahili – to the Muslim public in coastal Kenya.
Regardless of their exceptional position as female preachers, these women are confronted with the challenge of justifying their activities. They have to convince the male religious scholars that they are knowledgeable. They also have to plead the case that – in spite of being women – their voice is deep and less feminine. And not soft and seductive.
This is because female preachers are confronted with the prevailing belief that classifies their voices as nakedness (aura). One of the female preachers argued that,
“For me being at the radio station is similar to being behind a curtain, a strategy that Aisha used to conceal herself while addressing her male students.”
According to Islamic history, Aisha – the wife of Prophet Muhammad – was very knowledgeable on Islamic matters. Several companions of Prophet Muhammad went to her to seek religious knowledge, but behind a curtain. In equating a radio station to a curtain, the female preachers emphasized that it is
“possible to interact with the public without people [read men] seeing me.”
Female preachers in coastal Kenya are compelled to talk with a “manly” voice in order for them to be accepted and provided with a platform to articulate issues concerning their faith. As a result, the female preachers can only exist with the consent of the male religious authorities in the Muslim communities.
But female preachers are reluctant to challenge the existing behavioural norms. This out of fear of losing the preaching platforms availed to them at the Muslim radio stations. Their adherence to the “acceptable” religious and social norms guarantees their participation in the Muslim public sphere.