The month of Ramadan is the month of Qur’an. It is conventional to see tafseer (Qur’an exegesis/explanation) being held in mosques, open spaces or any designated venues. In the South of Nigeria, these tafaaseer (plural) are attended by both males and females. In the North, females do attend too but only in some cases. This may be connected with the fact that most mosques in the North do not have provision for female worshippers. This is bad! Not in line with the Sunnah. And because many of these tafaaseer take place in the mosques, females, are by default, not attendees.
Given the above cultural background, it should be a thing of joy to see a mufassirah (a female exegete) preaching, teaching and explaining verses of the Qur’an in the month of Ramadan. But because tafseer is known to be given by men (not women) in our clime, the emergence of women as mufassiraat (plural), is quickly dismissed—by some—as un-Sunnatic! In other words, un-Islamic!
The first time I listened to a tafseer—video clip—by Mallama Zainab, I was like, wow! A female exegete? In a conservative north? The fact that her father was a renowned mufassir added to my joy. I felt a deep sense of nostalgia—reminiscent of her late father, Sheikh Ja’far Mahmud Adam (may Allah have mercy on him). I did not know how I started supplicating for this Sheikh. I immediately thanked Allah; soliloquizing: this is a legacy that any committed sheikh (religious scholar) would like to leave behind. The fact that this is happening after more than a decade of the demise of Sheikh Ja’far gives me a strong hope that Allah is pleased with him. Not even his son, this will be expected; but his daughter. And amazingly, she is as eloquent and expressive as her father.
Yet, there is barrage of criticisms against female preachers which can be summarized as follows: a woman cannot be a mufassirah, female public preaching is haram (prohibited), a woman cannot preach in the presence of men, and the voice of a female is haram. All these criticisms can be subsumed under the ‘haramness’ of female voice which Dr. Rahina Muazu termed ‘Vocal Nudity’.
The phrase ‘Vocal Nudity’ which is the actual challenge is, I think, a coinage of Dr. Rahina—for I don’t find its usage elsewhere. It features in one of her presentations (via zoom) at Harvard Divinity School in the United States titled “Why Invite Her Here? Her Voice Is AWRA—The Female Voice and Vocal Nudity Debates In Northern Nigeria”.
To address the above criticisms, the first question to ask is: where is the evidence that says a woman cannot be a mufassirah? This ultimately ends the discussion; for there is no such evidence. I always ask myself: why are men always paranoid of women? If female public preaching had been said to be a taboo from the perspective of northern Hausa/Fulani tradition, it would have been okay. Those of us who are not too conservative might conclude that those against female preaching are entitled to their opinion. But to attribute the taboo to Islam would be a serious disservice to the religion.
The often quoted verse in regards to female voice is the verse of ikhda’ (softening the voice) which says “Then be not soft in your speech, lest he in whose heart is a disease (evil desire for adultery) should be moved with desires, but speak in an honorable manner.” (Q33:32). How does this verse make female voice nude? If the voice of a female mufassirah turns you on, it means there is a disease in your heart. And the cure is simply not to listen to her tafseer as you are not under any obligation to listen.
To justify their understanding of nakedness, and thus prohibition, of female voice from the above verse, they would need to deduce prohibition of women’s walk from the verse which says; “And let them (women) not stamp their feet so as to reveal as to reveal what they hide of their adornment.” (Q 24:31). The first verse only instructs women to be decent when they talk in the presence of men; not to be dumb. The second verse instructs them not to walk in a manner that deliberately reveals their adornment (for instance anklets), it does not prohibit walking.
If they insist that female voice is haram, then their movement should also be haram. In that case we will need to add ‘Foot Nudity’ to Dr. Hahina’s ‘Vocal Nudity.’ This sounds ridiculous; and it is.
Problematizing women generally and designating them as evil has a deep historical root which predates Islam. It is Islam that liberates them. For instance Uman bn Khattab RA (the second Caliph) once said “in Jahiliyyah (the age of ignorance before Islam), we used to have no regard for women whatsoever.” But ‘Umar’s view about women significantly changed under the tender guidance of our noble Prophet SAW.
However, denigration of women continued through the ages even by scholars who should know better. Among many other unspeakable descriptions of women, a 12th Century exegete Fakhruddeen Ar-Razi RA wrote in his Mafaatihul Ghayb, “Women were created like animals and plants…and that necessitates women not to be created for worship and carrying the divine commands…because the woman is weak, silly, in one sense she is a child, and no commands are laid upon a child.” This kind of thinking—though has nothing to do with Islam—still persists.
Nevertheless, the good news is that some of these female preachers are not accidental preachers. Scholarship has a deep root in their families. Here is Mallama Zainab whose father is well known. We also have Mallama Khadija Gambo Hawaja, Dr. Zahra’u Muhammad Umar etc. There is also a wife to the respected Sheikh Aminu Ibrahim Daurawa. May Allah continue to make them light of guidance.