Religious Practices of Egyptian Muslim Women

Jane I. Smith

Jane I. Smith, “Religious Practices of Egyptian Muslim Women,” in Mormons and Muslims: Spiritual Foundations and Modern Manifestations, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University 2002), 173–82.

At the time of the symposium, Jane I. Smith was associate dean of academic affairs and lecturer in comparative religion at Harvard University. A graduate of Michigan State University in social science, she received a B.D. from the Hartford Seminary Foundation and her Ph.D. in the history of religion/Islamic studies from Harvard University. Professor Smith published and lectured extensively on religious themes relation to Islam and particularly on women in Islam.

Most writing about women in Muslim societies focuses on the roles assigned to them by the religious and social structure of Islam and on the opportunities afforded or denied to them in the present sociopolitical circumstance in various countries. I would like to discuss the activities of Egyptian Muslim women in the religious sphere, looking at what they do, and why, in the context of the familial and societal structure in which they must operate. Specifically, I will consider how, given the traditional ascription of authority to males and the continuing exercise of that authority, women act to assure some degree of power in their own circumstances.

Just as it is extremely difficult to generalize about Islamic women in the global context—although one notes frequent attempts to do so—it is also difficult to treat women in any given country as a unit. Egyptian Muslim women operate out of a variety of socioeconomic and cultural circumstances [1] and represent very different modes of response to the fact of being Muslim. As they differ, so do their religious practices. Some of these practices are what one might call borderline Muslim, on the fringes of what orthodoxy considers acceptable, while others are centrally and totally religious. Still others are only peripherally religious but are primarily social or cultural. As a whole they constitute the variety of ways that these women have found to be religious, to relate to that which is beyond the ordinary, and to attempt to exercise some degree of control over their own circumstances.

Egyptian religious practices as a whole—as can perhaps be said about most of the Muslim world—are in many cases determined by social and economic factors and thus are part of a class phenomenon in which both men and women participate. In other cases, however, women’s practices have developed precisely because females to some extent have been excluded from the world of males and therefore from ‘ibadat (acts of piety) which are part of the male domain. It is only since 1971, for example, that Egyptian women have been allowed to attend Friday prayers. Reasons for the earlier exclusion are complex, and in general are part of the seclusion which, while not Qur’anic, often has characterized the situation of Muslim women. [2] Women are seldom seen at Friday prayers even today, are normally forbidden from joining in the zikr (“remembering,” act of devotion) ceremonies, and in general are not part of the formal religious structures in which men operate.

As a result of these restrictions, women not surprisingly have emphasized those elements of formal Islam that have remained open to them. [3] Within the five basic religious duties incumbent on all Muslims, fasting is taken more seriously by women than prayer, the latter being engaged in almost exclusively in the privacy of the home. The structure of the month of fasting provides the occasion for social interaction and a playing out of the feminine role in preparation of the meals which break the fast. Part of the social service aspect of Islam—traditionally provided for by the paying of the zakat tax usually by males—middle- and upper-class women for some decades in Egypt have organized and participated in Muslim associations for social service and change.

In addition to these sorts of activities provided for by the structure of Islam, Muslim women have developed a range of religious practices that are more clearly characterized as their own. Because males by Qur’anic sanction are assigned authority over women, [4] women have had to develop a variety of ways to exercise power. Usually, these tactics relate to power over forces in the supernatural realm, but simultaneously they also provide the means whereby women exert some degree of control over their own circumstances and, in the process, over the men to whose authority they are Qur’anically entrusted. That which on the one hand represents a means of controlling forces in the world of the unseen, at the same time gives many women a means of coping with the material world and securing their own place in it.

Divination and healing, for example, are almost exclusively female activities. Egyptian sociologist Sayyid ‘Uways [5] describes the practice in the Nile Valley in which certain women, usually of peasant stock, attempt to heal children suffering from problems of temperament. Securing a price from the mother, they tie up their long skirts, wade into the water, and immerse the child three times in the Nile. It is interesting to note that this is done for three consecutive weeks precisely at the time of the Friday prayer, the traditional male time to worship in the mosque. If the child is healed, his or her clothing is thrown into the Nile. It is mainly among women that one finds such practices as the wearing of sacred or magic rings supposed to contain certain kinds of occult powers. Common in Egypt as in most Middle Eastern cultures is the belief in the power of the evil eye, warded off by the wearing of charms and blue beads which women often tie on the necks or beds of their children. Again, it is most often women who engage in such Islamically suspect activities as palm reading and divination. [6]

One long-lived custom observed in Egypt primarily though not exclusively by women—again beyond the borderline of what orthodox Islam finds acceptable—is that of the zar ceremony. Zar refers both to the belief that one can be possessed by a spirit and to the ceremony in which exorcism is believed to take place. [7] Zar ceremonies can be either public or private. In both instances the primary actors are the women who believe themselves possessed by spirits or ‘afrits (believed to be male), the shaykh, who by means of dance and trance induces the spirit to leave, and the friends and relatives of the possessed woman, who encourage her in this process and provide strong communal support and bonding.

In general, men disavow the efficacy of the zar ceremony and even deny the possibility that their wives or female relatives might thus be controlled by supernatural spirits or beings. [8] What is noteworthy, however, is that they seldom refuse to allow their women to participate, either out of covert fear of the spirit or out of concern that they will be publicly censured for refusing to allow their wives to help. It is also clear that the afflicted women derive a number of benefits from this whole process. The symptoms are real and include swelling of the legs or stomach, a high degree of nervousness, and so forth; and the process of exorcism is often a traumatic one, sending the women into a state of exhaustion. Nonetheless, the benefits are real: a break in the monotony of a routine life, a way for wealthy (and therefore more secluded) women to get out of the house, a degree of control over the family finances, as the husband must pay for participation in the zar, an opportunity to become the center of attention among women friends and relatives, and even a way to achieve a kind of status in the community. [9] While “cures” are not uncommon, many women continue to be possessed for long periods of time.

Another area of religious response in which women have been primary participants is visiting the tombs of historical and contemporary saints. Many males also do this, of course, but women certainly have found in the practices related to tomb visiting an immediate and acceptable way to meet their social and psychological needs, as well as their devotional ones. Here again, it affords them an opportunity to exert power over their own circumstances, this time by appeal to an outside agency-the saint (wali).

While supplication of the wali has been historically condemned as heretical and leading to the perversion of the faith, in general it has remained part of the total fabric of Islamic religious response. Orthodox Islam admits the validity of praying through the saints to

God, but not of praying to them; in common practice, however, this distinction often gets blurred. Today in Egypt the custom is widespread, and even has the sanction of the Azhar. [10] The walis are seen as physically deceased but alive in their tombs, listening to the prayers and pleas of their visitors and responding to them. There are several aspects to the relationship with the saints (also called the shaykhs). In some of these, such as the mulid (birthday observance) for the saint, men and women alike participate. Other elements of the shaykh cult are more particularly “female.” The visit to the tomb, which may be located inside a larger mosque, on the grounds of a mosque, or by itself with some kind of protective structure, is called ziyara. Often women use the ziyara simply to sit in a peaceful place, enjoying a respite from the demands of husbands and family. It has been observed that while men generally come to the tomb and make a quick request of the wali, women often stay for long periods of time. Many times they will take parts of their garments and “clean” the railing of the tomb or dust off the ground around it as a way of honoring the saint and obtaining baraka (power, efficacy, blessing).

Another way of obtaining power is by asking the direct intervention of the saint in solving a personal problem. This generally entails making a nadr (vow) to somehow repay the wali should one’s request be granted. Studies made both in Cairo and in Upper Egypt [11] indicate that the two requests most commonly made of walis are to contract a successful marriage, either for oneself or for one’s daughter, and to become pregnant. [12] Other popular petitions are requests for help in setting traps for one’s enemies, specifically other wives or proposed wives of one’s husband. It is not surprising that there is such strong emphasis on family and sexual matters. Not only do these roles constitute the total world of many women, but sexuality is the one area where women have final control over men, as it is they who are the source of reproduction. (This is undoubtedly one reason why birth control programs have met with great resistance, especially in rural Egypt.) When a difficult problem has found some resolution, the nadr is fulfilled. Fatima Mernissi, observing the similar phenomenon of women’s visits to sanctuaries in Morocco, notes that the system of nadr is a satisfying one for women. If one goes to a doctor for an ointment, for example, one must pay whether or not relief is forthcoming. With the saint, payment (fulfilling of nadr) comes only with satisfaction. “Saints . . . embody the refusal to accept arrogant expertise,” she says, “to submit blindly to authority, to be treated as subordinate.” [13]

Often the relation to the saint, while “religious” in the implicit recognition that the wali’s power comes only through his or her capacity to mediate the power of God, takes on a very different character from that of one’s relationship to God himself. Respect and devotion are present, but the woman does not hesitate to rebuke her wali if she thinks that he or she is not listening or has been negligent in fulfilling a request. One woman, for example, is said to have rubbed a local saint’s tomb with garlic (which she knew he disliked) to chastise him for apparent inattention. Here again a woman can assume a position of power and control over a male, even though he be a saint!

It is quite clear, then, that either consciously or subconsciously Egyptian Muslim women continue to turn to religious practices and customs that by definition set them apart from the more “orthodox” forms of religious response observed by the males in society. While some conservative male voices insist on assigning women an inferior status and excluding them from the male domain, [14] clearer and more obvious recognition is being given to the necessity of assuring increasing opportunity for women to participate in the religious structure. These several realities have led to an interesting situation with regard to Egyptian Muslim women. On the one hand we see the continuation of practices outside the male structure that assure women control over their circumstances, and which, in fact, give them a kind of power that equal participation would not. On the other hand, particularly in the urban educated middle and upper classes, many women reaffirm their role within the orthodox Islamic structure.

To understand the situation of women in Egypt, as in other parts of the Islamic world (and this is not even to speak of recent changes in legal circumstances for women), it is necessary to attempt to see things through Muslim as well as through Western eyes. What most Western observers of Islamic practices assume to be clear inequities in the circumstances of men and women—and therefore unjust if not immoral—are not necessarily viewed that way by Egyptian Muslim women. The various forms of liberation Muslim women see advocated in the West are often understood by them as even more insidious forms of bondage. They look at social and political circumstances in the West and see men and women in conflict, rather than functioning complementarily as in the Islamic system. They fear what they see as inevitable loss of male protection and support and reject isolated individualism.

Thus we find that certain traditional practices that were historically imposed on women are now being reinterpreted in forms that many Egyptian women not only accept but consciously choose as a means of affirming their allegiance to Islam. One interesting example of this is to be found in the adoption of new forms of dress. After centuries of enforced seclusion, many educated Egyptian women followed the example of the celebrated Huda Sha’rawi in the 1920s in discarding the veil and wearing Western dress as a sign of their newly realized liberation. As the century wore on, it became increasingly clear to Muslims in many parts of the Middle East that the wholesale adoption of Western ways would have undesirable consequences. The complex elements in increased Islamic consciousness of the last decade cannot be detailed here, but it is clear that many Muslim women have felt the need, with men, to affirm their identity as Muslims and to indicate in the process their disenchantment with many aspects of Western culture.

One manifestation of this attitude is the adoption by middle and upper middle-class Muslim women of what is called “lawful dress” (al-ziyy al-shar’i), a conservative costume consisting of a long skirt or trousers, a long-sleeved tunic, and a headdress such as a scarf or wrapping that covers the hair but not the face. [15] Western observers may see the selection of this kind of dress as a step backwards, but for the Muslim woman it is very different from enforced veiling and seclusion. They choose this garb voluntarily as a sign of allegiance to Islam. It is not a coincidence that it began to appear a few years after the 1967 defeat of the Arabs at the hands of Israel, an event that engendered serious discussion about the need to return to strict Islam to be worthy of victory, which God guarantees his community in the Qur’an. [16] Far from suggesting seclusion, the lawful dress is seen by its advocates as ensuring that women will not be subject to unwanted advances by male associates, thus permitting them safe entry into a more active public life.

Not all of the educated women, of course, applaud this change in dress. Many Egyptian women are Christians and repudiate the costume’s religious implications. Some feminists are outraged at what they see as a return to purdah. Often more interested in improving the status of women than in affirming the principles of Islam, they nonetheless look to possibilities in their own culture rather than to Western models for achieving the equality they desire.

Contemporary Egypt, then, provides a cross section of women’s responses to their personal and social circumstances. Insofar as these reflect the ways in which they are allowed to be Muslim—or self-consciously attempt to identify themselves as Muslim—we can call them religious. What is clear is that within the possibilities afforded to them by their respective circumstances (social, educational, economic), they have developed an elaborate set of ways in which to exert power in the face of designated male authority. Struggling on many levels to achieve what they believe to be right and fair, they also sagely recognize that the more viable option may lie in maintaining—often through various kinds of manipulation—a system that works for them. Conversing with a young Muslim woman who is highly educated and well familiar with Western culture, I pressed her on the Qur’an verse that assigns ultimate authority to men over women. “Doesn’t it ever make you angry?” I asked in a last attempt to arouse her female pride. “If I viewed it out of context,” she replied, “it might. But in context, within the total Islamic system, it is the only viable way. I look at your American system of liberation for women and I see families falling apart and moral structures collapsing. If it is necessary for my husband to have the last word—then let him. Frankly, it works. And in the end, I can usually get my way by other means. . . .


[1] Various categorical divisions of Egyptian women have been suggested by anthropologists and sociologists; in general they may be viewed most easily as falling into three main groups: rural, traditional urban, and educated urban.

[2] One of the rationales offered for this exclusion is that a woman may be menstruating, therefore unclean.

[3] It should be stressed that the prophet Muhammad did not place restrictions on women in the religious sphere but emphasized the divine message of the Qur’an that women are fully responsible with men and fully accountable for their faith and actions.

[4] “Men are in charge [or, are the protectors] of women, because God has given preference to the one over the other, and because men provide support for women from their means. Therefore righteous women are obedient” (Qur’an 4:34).

[5] Al-Khuludfi Hayat al-Misriyin al-Mu’’asirin (Cairo), 42.

[6] See Cynthia Nelson, “Public and Private Politics: Women in the Middle Eastern World,” American Ethnologist 1 (1974): 556–61, for a discussion of power exerted by women over men in their roles as healers, magicians, etc. Nelson observes that the paucity of ethnographic descriptions of women’s religious practices in relation to the supernatural is a very inaccurate measure of the extent of such activities.

[7] These practices are not unique to Egypt. Generally felt to predate Islam, they are also found in Ethiopia, Sudan, and the Arabian peninsula.

[8] There is a strong association between the zar ceremony and the wedding ceremony. In the private zar, the possessed woman dresses in her best clothing and is referred to as the bride. Many ceremonies even include the use of animal blood possibly symbolizing the mandatory bleeding accompanying first intercourse on the wedding night.

[9] For further detail on the variety of manifestations of the zar practices see such works as Rani Fakhouri, “The Zar Cult in an Egyptian Village,” Anthropology Quarterly 41 (April 1968): 49–56; Lucie Wood Saunders, “Variants in Zar Experience in an Egyptian Village,” eds. Vincent Crapazano and Vivien Garrison, Case Studies in Spirit Possession (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1977), 177–91.

[10] See, for example, Farid Mahir, Karamat al-Awliya (Cairo), chapter 1.

[11] See Sayyid ‘Uways, Min Malamih al-Mujtama’ al-Misri al-Mu’asir and Nawal el- Messiri, “Sheikh Cult in Dahmit” (Master’s thesis, University of Cairo, 1965).

[12] Letters addressed to the imam Shafi’i in Cairo and sent through the public mail to the tomb are preponderantly from women.

[13] “Women, Saints, and Sanctuaries,” Signs 3 (autumn 1977), 104.

[14] See Yvonne Haddad, “Traditional Affirmations Concerning the Role of Women as Found in Contemporary Arab Islamic Literature” in J. I. Smith, ed., Women in Contemporary Muslim Societies (Brunswick, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1980), 61–86.

[15] See John Alden Williams, “Veiling in Egypt as a Political and Social Phenomenon,” in John Esposito, ed., Islam and Development (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1980), 71–85.

[16] See Cynthia Nelson, “Social Change and Sexual Identity in Contemporary Egypt,” in George A. DeVos, ed., Responses to Change (New York: D.Van Nostrand Co., 1967), 335.