photo courtesy of Essmat El-Nemr
On page 134 of his 1959 book titled Alhan Al-Samaa (The Tunes of Heaven), Mahmoud El-Saadany writes that, with the death of Nabawiya El-Nahhas in 1973, a great page of women reciters and religious chanters of the modern age was forever folded -- for she was the woman reciter of the Quran in national festivals and a favorite of the royal family, one of Egypt’s leading women reciters of the day, along with Karima El-Adleya, Monira Abdou and Sekina Hassan.
Karima El-Adleya’s voice was introduced to listeners’ ears on private radio channels -- quite popular in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century -- where she recited Quranic verses up until World War II. Umm Mohamed, on the other hand, was known during the reign of Mohamed Ali who so admired her enchanting recitation that he allowed her to recite Quran in Ramadan in Istanbul at the Sultana's women's quarters. When Umm Mohamed died, Mohamed Ali held a grand funeral ceremony for her and even constructed a shrine for her in Al-Imam Al-Shafei area.
However, Egyptian listeners in 1920 were bewildered by the voice of Monira Abdou, the slim, visually challenged young woman who began reciting Quran when she was 18. By the launch of the Egyptian Radio Broadcasting Service in 1934, she was among the first women to recite Quran on national radio. Unfortunately, her radio days came to an abrupt end by the beginning of WWII (1939) when novel fatwa (religious edicts) were issued to ban women from reciting Quran on national radio, on the alleged religious grounds that there is temptation in a woman’s voice.
The fatwa made society frown upon women reciters, which significantly diminished women's role in Quran recitation, causing some reciters -- such as Sheikha Sekina Hassan -- to shift into a singing career instead, like many of her peers at the time. Others, however, proceeded along their paths undeterred -- now limited, however, to women gatherings and funerals. And, of course, there were always the moulids (crowd-gathering and celebratory birth anniversaries of saints).
Thankfully, Sheikh Abul-Enein Sheishaa (1922-2011) the late head of Egypt’s Reciters Syndicate, was always against the banning of women from Quran recitation on the radio, seeing no difference between women radio presenters and women reciters. Making several news headlines, he insisted that there were no official laws banning women reciters from national radio, but that no efforts were being exerted to help them broadcast on the air either.
Sheishaa refuted the claims made by sheikhs from the ultra-conservative trend who argued that women were not reciters in Prophet Mohamed’s era. "This is an illogical claim, because the Prophet allowed a number of women to recite his own sayings,” he said.
Unfortunately, only rare recordings remain of the recitations of the bold and liberal women with golden voices mentioned earlier. Before he passed away, however, Sheishaa stated that he had approved a handful of new women Quran reciters. Amen to that.
Link to rare record of Sheikha Sekina Hassan reciting Quran
courtesy of Essmat El-Nemr