Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 6 January 2009
Issue No. 928
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Girl power: Maazouna for the first time

2008 saw Egyptian women make history as they fought their way into traditionally male-oriented jobs, Amany Abdel-Moneim cheers for the role models

Click to view caption
Afifi conducting her first marriage contract

The traditional image of a maazoun (marriage registrar), reinforced by both popular perception and artistic production, is that of a man dressed in the clothing worn by religious scholars, in other words, the imma (turban) and quftan (cloak). The archetypal maazoun carries a large book, and converses in classical Arabic.

Smashing our stereotypical expectations, an average-looking young Egyptian woman has broken centuries of tradition by being appointed as the first maazouna (female marriage registrar) in the Middle East, and possibly the Muslim world.

Amal Suleiman Afifi, aged 34, was officially certified by the Egyptian Ministry of Justice as the nation's first maazouna in October 2008 . Afifi, a lawyer and mother of three, holds law and criminal justice degrees as well as a master's degree in Sharia (Islamic Law) from Zagazig University. Her qualifications gave her the credentials to beat 10 male candidates vying for the post in her relatively conservative hometown of Qanayat, province of Sharqiya governorate, some 60 kilometres north of Cairo. "I was granted the licence for the job even though many other male maazouns and court officials either considered my application to be against Sharia or ridiculed me outright," Afifi told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Afifi's exceptional appointment created a diverse debate in Egypt and the Arab world. The Egyptian Justice Minister Mamdouh Marei said in a statement: "Afifi's nomination depended on her abilities rather than her gender." Still, she was criticised by some male marriage registrars who saw their status being challenged. She also met fierce resistance from both lawyers and religious clerics. They claimed this job is unfit for women as religion prevents women who are menstruating from praying or entering a mosque. Afifi argues that during menstruation she will conduct marriages in people's homes or wedding halls. Another protest claimed it is inappropriate for a woman to sit amongst men during the signing of the marriage certificates, as the marriage officer sits directly between the groom and his father-in-law, and holds their hands together. According to Afifi, she has conducted several legitimate marriage contracts without holding hands. "That is a matter of tradition," she said.

A few conservative Muslim thinkers protested against the appointment, claiming that according to Sharia, the testimony of two women is equivalent to that of one man in court. Therefore a marriage contract signed by a woman would be considered illegal. Conversely, Egypt's leading liberal-minded religious scholars, including the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, disagreed and pointed out that a marriage registrar is a mere administrator, whose role was developed by the state to manage records and guarantee the legitimate rights of the parties concerned. The maazoun has nothing to do with the pillars of the Islamic marriage. Therefore her signature on the contract does not violate Sharia. Consequently, by executing the role of a marriage registrar, Afifi should not be considered a witness, but rather an official. As such, her signature on the contract does not in any way contravene the rules of Islam.

To put an end to the debate, Gomaa issued a fatwa (religious edict) declaring that there are no restrictions in Islam on women to act as marriage registrars. "According to the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence which is followed in Egypt, women are allowed to conduct any form of financial, commercial or familial contract, including marriage," said Gomaa.

Despite the great hassle and opposition, Afifi, never gave up or lost hope. Instead, she accepted the challenge, battled hard, and finally she won the position after months of hectic legal debates. On her first day as a female marriage registrar Afifi contentedly married a couple for free in a mosque in the Delta town of Zagazig. The ceremony was attended by hundreds of people and covered by media.

Afifi's appointment has already had its positive impact . On 14 November, the United Arab Emirates followed in Egypt's footsteps and appointed Fatemah Said Obeid Al-Awani as the first maazouna in the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department, and the second in the Arab world.

Legally, a candidate for the post of maazoun should have received a higher degree in Sharia and law. He, or she, should be a resident of the neighbourhood where the role will be conducted, be in good health, enjoy a good reputation, and be over 21. The applicant should have Egyptian parents and should have completed his or her military service, or have been exempted, before applying for the job. A clear police record is necessary and the applicant should obtain the approval of at least 10 male residents in the neighbourhood where he or she wishes to work.

In many cases however unqualified applicants are appointed when none of the candidates has the required qualifications. This is especially the case in rural areas and small villages, where a maazoun may merely hold a preparatory school certificate.

In urban areas, the job is gaining popularity and prestige, especially after Mohamed Ali El-Mahgoub, a former maazoun, once the minister of awqaf (religious endowments) and many others acceded to prestigious posts in the People's Assembly. Many retired professors and judges have also worked as registrars to supplement their income.

Still, what started out as a simple job search for our first maazouna turned into a something she would never have predicted a year ago. "I just wanted a job fitting my education and skills, and suitable for me as a wife and a mother," she said. A mere accident of fate, together with her husband's support, paved the way for Afifi to make this change in her career. "One of the two marriage officers in my neighborhood, who happened to be my husband's uncle, passed away leaving behind a job opportunity," she recalled. For three months everyone wondered who would replace him. Her husband, who is behind her fully, advised her to apply for the post. Right before the application deadline in October 2007, Afifi rushed over to the civil court in Zagazig to submit her forms. The clerk's first reaction was objection as if her act had revolted his manhood. But Afifi, who studied law at college, including Sharia, was certain that nothing in law prohibits women from being a marriage officers. "I took my case to the head of the Zagazig provincial family court and was accepted along with 10 male applicants," she added.

Much to the surprise of the other local maazouns, Afifi was chosen as the best qualified, and her name was passed on to Cairo, for the approval of the Ministry of Justice in February 2008. "My appointment was approved on 26 September the same year, and finally I received my certificate in October 2008," said a jubilant Afifi, who was always confident that the court would support her application for the job. "I was the only one among the applicants holding a masters degree in Sharia. Besides, I was sure that I would not be excluded on gender grounds as Islam and the law treat men and women on equal footing," she added.

Despite the publicity she has received, the new female registrar does not want to be seen as the galvanising symbol of women's activism in Egypt or the Islamic world for that matter. "I am a mother and a wife first and don't want to be talked about as breaking barriers and changing the world," she told the Weekly. "But, at the same time I understand how I am important and will create more opportunities for women in my country," she added.

Afifi, who is recently breaking into a male-dominated job registrar, revealed to the Weekly her motives and explained why it is a good thing for Egypt to have a female marriage registrar. "I will be in a better position than my male counterparts, as young women planning to get married would feel more comfortable in running a woman to woman talk and giving their direct consent to the contract," she further added. This also holds true in cases of divorce as women would find it easier to talk to a female registrar than a male.

This could give, the female registrar the chance to assist those facing marriage difficulties in resolving their differences and salvaging their marriages from collapse and reducing the divorce rate.

According to the new maazouna, women as young as 14 or 15 have been reported to have been forced into marriage by their family; and it is the job of the maazoun to ensure that the marriage is consensual by both partners and the bride really wants to marry the groom and is not being forced by her family. "And being a woman will enable me to cross through societal structures, and women will be able to speak up when something is wrong," she added.

Egypt's first female registrar has her own promising agenda. "I think it is about time for Egyptian registrars to establish their own syndicate. Like any other government employee, the maazoun ought to be entitled to medical insurance, pension, a monthly salary and other vital services," she said.

After conducting around 26 marriage contracts and concluding five divorces in nearly 45 day, -- the usual average of male maazouns -- Afifi discovered that people are in urgent need to be educated about their rights before concluding a marriage or a divorce. She is thinking seriously about preparing a brochure that contains certified religious information about the rights and duties of the bride and groom to be towards each other. "I was first introduced to this brochure during my last business visit to Bahrain," said Afifi. The Bahraini government provides it to couples enough time prior to the wedding in order to get acquainted with their rights. "I think such brochure will help our people here, especially in rural areas," she added.

Last year represented a remarkable and factual turning point in the career of Egypt's first female registrar. As for 2009, she wishes for Egyptian women to take on more protagonism. "After the recent appointment of the first female mayor, I wish to witness the appointment of the first female governor this year. This will be a further proof of women's potential to hold whatever position they like and that they are as efficient as men."

By Amany Abdel-Moneim

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