Enchanted with Enshad: Egyptian women religious chanters

Amira Noshokaty , Wednesday 19 Apr 2023

Young chanter Neama Fathy announced on Tuesday the launch of El-Hour Academy, the first school for women religious chanters in Egypt.

Alhour troupe s rehearsal. Photo by amira noshokaty
Alhour troupe s rehearsal. Photo by amira noshokaty


At the new premises of El-Hour Women Enshad (religious chanting) troupe at Al-Nahda Association for Scientific and Cultural Renaissance in Faggala, Fathy held the first rehearsal for the troupe, which was established in 2017 and will soon celebrate its eighth anniversary. 

Starting her own chanting troupe at the age of 20, 28-year-old Fathy revealed how she has been enchanted with enshad ever since she was a child.

"My mother comes from a line of El-Ashraf (Descendants of Prophet Muhammed) and I grew up seeing my family serve, cater, and provide for the needy during Moulids of Sayeda Zeinab and Al-Hussein. I used to attend the Sunday Hadra (religious chanting) in the Mosque of Sayeda Nafissa with my mother. She encouraged me to persue chanting and learn more," Fathy told Ahram Online.  

The troupe and academy are indeed a milestone in the long history of women chanters in Egypt.

History of women chanters in Egypt

The History of Women Chanters in Egypt is a research paper explaining how women have long been established in the religious chanting realm, according to music heritage researcher Dalia Fahmy. "In fact, they are now flourishing, especially by forming their own women praisers/chanters troupes or as individuals, such as Aya El-Tablawy, who is the granddaughter of great Sufi chanter and Quran reciter El-Tablawy, and El-Hour chanting troupe," she told Ahram Online.

Sufi chanting nights include zikr (remembrance of Allah), enshad, madih (praise of Prophet Muhammed and his descendants), and syra (epic stories). One of the most enchanting mystical elements of Ramadan are the praise nights that are often associated with famous male praisers. However, this has not always been the case.

The role of women in chanting

In Egypt, many conversations start and end with the praise of the prophet, and so the folk song remained the closest manifestation of the emotional consciousness of people, and at the same time, it reflected how they think of praising the prophet and how they incorporate this praise in all their religious and folk celebrations, read the research paper. 

Women have been a big part of this picture. Women Quran reciters have been quite popular at the beginning of the 20th century. There were also women who chanted in praise of Prophet Muhammad; they chanted in wedding processions and for those who returned from the Hajj journey. They chanted during funerals to highlight the morals of death and remembrance of the afterlife. 

Famous women chanters in Egypt

Sheikha Um Mohamed was the first known Quran reciter during the era of Muhammed Ali. She recited Quran during Ramadan Nights at the Haramlek (Ladies' quarters) of the Wally. Her voice was so enchanting that Muhammed Ali asked her to chant and recite Quran in Istanboul. She was buried in a special graveyard at Imam Al-Shafei burial grounds. Lots of women followed her path, and their recitings were recorded in the early 1930s, such as Sekina Hassan, Karima El-Adelia, and Mounira Abdou.

Sheikha Nabawia El-Nahhas had a powerful voice, and she was the only woman who would recite and chant in public religious ceremonies in Al-Hussein Mosque, the women section. She died in 1973.

Sheikha Mounira Abdou was the first woman to be accredited for Quran recitation from the Egyptian national radio. She was only 18 when she became so popular, receiving a salary equivalent to EGP 5. However, it was post-World War II that some influential sheikhs stated that the voice of women is a sin, and the national radio closed its door in the face of women reciters, chanters, and praisers. This led those women to be closer to Egyptian streets, and soon they owned the stage in moulids, weddings, on cassettes, and television.

Hajja Hanyat Shaaban was a praiser and syra reciter. She was named by renowned music composer and singer Farid Al-Atrash as a woman with a pure voice.

Sett Fatma Sarhan was famous in the 1960s and was among several artists that worked with the icon of folk songs Zakaria El-Heggawy. She was the youngest woman who had her own praising tent at Al-Hussein district in the 1950s and 1960s. She worked with national folk troupes.

Khadra Mohamed Khedr was one of the most famous folk singers and praisers in the 20th century. Her father was a singer and praiser in moulids, and she took after her father and formed her own chanting troupe. In 1955, she joined her husband El-Heggawy, and together they formed El-Nil folk troupe. Her performances ran often on national television during the 1980s and early 1990s.

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