Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 April 2000
Issue No. 477
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

A turban -- and heels

By Gihan Shahine

We didn't know what to expect as we headed toward Amaal Abdel-Ghani's office in Agouza. Abdel-Ghani is the first woman in Egypt to apply for the job of ma'zoun -- the person legally authorised to conclude Muslim marriages and divorces.

The traditional image of a ma'zoun, reinforced by popular perception as well as cinematic and literary production, is still that of a man in the garments worn by religious scholars: the 'imma (turban) and quftan (cloak), carrying a large book, and conversing in classical Arabic.

What then would a 'ma'zouna' look like? Even the feminine construction sounds improbable, so accustomed are people to the idea of a ma'zoun being only male. Many laugh at the question, then seem thoughtful, even perplexed. "Can a woman even be a ma'zoun?" The legality, let alone the legitimacy, of a woman occupying such a traditionally male role seems to be in question here.

Contrary to our stereotyped expectations, the would-be ma'zouna is young and elegant. She smiles as she welcomes us into her office. She is wearing a red suit and a black silk blouse, make-up and discreet accessories.

Abdel-Ghani, 38, is married with two children. She seems like a typical enough career woman. After graduating from Cairo University's Faculty of Law in 1989, she obtained a diploma in Shari'a studies in 1993, and has been working as a lawyer for almost 11 years. Meanwhile, Abdel-Ghani spent ten years as assistant to a ma'zoun -- first her grandfather and then her brother -- doing paperwork and finalising legal procedures.

Abdel-Ghani is aware that many people would reject the idea of a woman being a ma'zoun, and accepts the challenge. Although she is very eager to obtain the post, she feels that, even if her application is not accepted, she will "at least be happy to have tried." In face of public criticism, Abdel-Ghani appears confident, calm and persistent.

photo: Khaled El-Fiqi
"I love the career, it's in my blood," Abdel-Ghani tells Al-Ahram Weekly when asked why she wants to be a ma'zoun. Abdel-Ghani emphatically denies all suggestions that the prospect of more money has prompted her desire for a change of career. She concedes, however, that being a lawyer is no longer much of a livelihood. Concluding marriages and divorces, on the other hand, is becoming increasingly profitable and competitive; fees are usually commensurate with the family's financial status.

Abdel-Ghani, however, insists she is following the example of her late grandfather, who rarely handled divorce cases and used to conclude many marriages for free. But isn't being a lawyer more prestigious? "For me, being a ma'zoun is a great honour. It is the profession of my ancestors and I would like to follow in their footsteps." Abdel-Ghani proudly points to photos hanging on the wall of her office, showing her father, grandfather and great-grandfather, who were all ma'zouns.

She owes her love of the profession to her grandfather. "He was a very patient, compassionate man. I used to help him finalise marriage contracts when I was a girl," she recounts. "I loved the work, and decided to enter the Faculty of Law, in the hope that I could be a ma'zoun one day, just like him."

For Abdel-Ghani, that day has finally come. Women are in the spotlight more than they have been in decades, receiving support and encouragement from the government. "Women are working in many different fields, and have proved that they are as efficient as men," she notes. She mentions the recent appointment of women to the posts of umda (village mayor) and chief administrative prosecutor in support of her argument. "Obtaining permission to work as a ma'zoun will be further proof of women's potential to hold whatever position they like," Abdel-Ghani adds enthusiastically.

Abdel-Ghani is up against 19 other candidates applying for the post of ma'zoun in the rural district of Ussim, on the outskirts of Giza, where she received the accreditation of ten male voters. Her application, submitted over two weeks ago, has been approved by the Giza Court and will be examined by the Imbaba Personal Status court later this month. In the appointment of a ma'zoun, the most qualified candidate is selected for the post. If two or more candidates have equal qualifications, a blind draw is conducted.

Legally, a candidate for the post of ma'zoun should have received a higher degree in Shari'a and law. He (or she) should be a resident of the neighbourhood where he will work, be in good health, enjoy a good reputation, and be over 21. The applicant should have Egyptian parents and should have completed his military service, or been exempted, before applying for the job. A clear police record is necessary and the applicant should obtain the approval of at least ten male residents of the neighbourhood where he wants to hold the job of ma'zoun.

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 ma'zoun may merely hold a preparatory school certificate.

In urban areas, however, the job is gaining popularity and prestige, especially after Mohamed Ali El-Mahgoub, a former ma'zoun, became 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 ma'zouns to supplement their income, since a ma'zoun can retain the pension of his former post. There are currently 7,817 ma'zouns in Egypt.

Theoretically, Abdel-Ghani is qualified for the job. It remains open to debate, however, whether a woman is legally entitled to the post, especially since no woman has ever applied before.

Abdel-Ghani insists nothing in law prohibits a woman from being a ma'zoun, and the Giza Court has accepted her application accordingly. Fawziya Abdel-Sattar, former head of the legislative committee of the People's Assembly, concurs.

"The ma'zoun is no more than a civil servant who records marriages and divorces," Abdel-Sattar maintains. She explains that legal documents are not a condition of marriage in Islam. But with communities growing into larger societies, civil law has made it obligatory to document marriages and divorce, as a security measure to guarantee the legitimate rights of the parties concerned. "I see no reason why a woman cannot hold the job of ma'zoun, since we have many female graduates of law schools already holding similar jobs, concluding different contracts in government offices."

As for the religious rituals accompanying the contract, Abdel-Sattar believe a sheikh could stand in for Abdel-Ghani. "The rituals are not necessary, but people would feel blessed having them performed by a religious man," she explains.

Abdel-Ghani, however, insists that, legally, the ma'zoun should be the one to carry out the religious rituals accompanying the conclusion of a marriage contract and the person to attempt to reconcile married couples before getting a divorce.

"I'm not sure whether it is religiously correct, but I know I have all the needed qualifications and background to carry out those rituals," Abdel-Ghani maintains. "I have a sufficient background in Shari'a, and my knowledge of the law will enable me to enlighten people about their rights before concluding a marriage or a divorce. I already do that now while working with my brother, and I've managed to reconcile many couples."

Abdel-Ghani is ready to take the veil if the job demands it. "I'd be happy to take this step," she asserts. "All my sisters are already veiled and I have a nice design in mind for an Islamic dress that would suit the religious aura of marriage and also allow me to enter mosques." Many Islamic scholars express no objection to a woman holding the job of a ma'zoun, since there is no clear text in the Qur'an or Sunna (prophetic tradition) prohibiting it. They base their argument on the fact that the job did not exist at the time of Prophet Mohamed and does not involve any guardianship -- which some conservative views would confine to men.

For a woman to carry out the rituals accompanying marriage, however, may be contested on religious grounds. Some would find it inappropriate for a woman to sit in the area reserved for men in the mosque and speak in a loud voice, which, they think, would not conform with the sanctity of the place.

More importantly, perhaps, the majority of those holding the job of ma'zoun are opposed to the idea of a woman competing in the field. "The job entails a lot of social and religious counseling a woman may not be qualified for," maintains Shafiq Ahmed, an Azharite ma'zoun in Doqqi. "Women are emotional by nature. Again, a woman should not be allowed to raise her voice in a mosque and sit among men. I also don't believe she can recite the Qur'an during menstruation."

Ahmed Shalabi, professor of Islamic civilisation at Cairo University, however, maintains that gender should not be an issue if the applicant is qualified. "If Abdel-Ghani has the necessary background in Shari'a, there can be nothing in Islam to prohibit her from holding the job," he maintains. Shalabi denies claims that women's emotions disqualify them for certain posts. It is common knowledge that in the time of Prophet Mohamed women used to deliver public sermons and take active part in political and social life. Furthermore, Abdel-Ghani is already a lawyer whose primary job is to settle disputes in accordance with civil law and Shari'a. Shalabi also opposes claims that a woman can not carry out the religious rituals of marriage during menstruation.

Still, social norms may remain an obstacle. "Although there is nothing against it in positive law or Shari'a, other social considerations make the job inappropriate for women," maintains Mohamed Hamed El-Gamal, former president of Maglis Al-Dawla (the State Council and Administrative Court). El-Gamal explains that the ma'zoun remains on call the whole day and, in case of emergency, may be called out at any time to conclude a marriage or a divorce. "For women, this would be inconvenient and could expose them to unnecessary danger, especially that they carry important documents with them," El-Gamal says. "Again, marriage is a sacred procedure that has a religious overtone and people would not want to compromise, as is the case in all other religions. We never heard of a nun, for example, concluding a marriage in church. And many men, especially in villages, would not feel comfortable dealing with a woman."

Oweiss Ibrahim, a resident of Edfu in Upper Egypt, agrees. He finds the idea of a female ma'zoun in the neighborhood where he lives socially unacceptable. "Women may be lawyers and doctors, but it is unsuitable for a woman to be a ma'zoun," he says. "When a couple want a divorce they could start fighting, and the ma'zoun could get hurt!"

Abdel-Ghani, however, retorts that her job as a lawyer is equally risk-fraught and exhausting. "I spend whole days in police stations and courts. Sometimes I deal with criminals," Abdel-Ghani says. "Being a ma'zoun could hardly be more dangerous, and anyway I think I will get myself a gun for extra protection. Besides, many men now accept to deal with women. The men in Ussim welcomed me, and the majority of my clients are already men. The idea of a female ma'zouna may be alien now, but in time, people will grow accustomed to it, just as they got used to having a ma'zoun wearing an elegant suit."

In fact, many young men interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly expressed no reluctance at the idea. Abdel-Ghani maintains that her husband is backing her fully. But will the court be as supportive?


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