By Menna A. Farouk
CAIRO, Aug 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — The words of the Islamic hymns being rehearsed in a small studio just outside Cairo are well known among Egyptian Muslims, but they have never sounded so different. Here, they are being sung by women.
Choral songs and recitals in praise of God and the Muslim Prophet Mohammad are a common religious custom in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, but they are almost always performed by men and boys.
The members of Alhour, Egypt's first all-female Muslim recitation choir, are determined to change that — challenging deep-rooted taboos about women singing in public or reciting from the Quran in the socially conservative country.
"Having women in the Muslim religious chanting field not only breaks social stereotypes about female chanters. It also gives a new, distinctive style to an art that has long been dominated by only men," said Alhour founder Nemaa Fathi, 26.
Sitting on chairs in the wood-panelled studio during a recent rehearsal, seven young women and girls scanned the lyrics on their mobile phones before closing their eyes and belting out the hymns, accompanied by a piano and drums.
Most wore brightly colored headscarves to cover their hair, but some shunned the traditional "hijab" or veil used in the Muslim-majority country, where debate about gender inequality has intensified in recent years.
Fathi started attending a school dedicated to the Arabic musical discipline known as "maqam," or chanting, when she was 19, but dropped out after several teachers said they did not want women in the classroom.
While the practice has both secular and religious uses in the Middle East, "maqams" are almost always sung by men in the region, where women who perform music or sing publicly are often viewed as promiscuous.
In Islam, "maqams" are used to put religious sayings including verses from the Quran to music and sing them with fellow believers.
That makes female performers even more taboo, and Fathi said she had faced repeated criticism since she launched Alhour in 2017 after connecting with other women and girls who wanted to follow their passion for the musical form.
"Since the choir's founding, we've faced widespread attacks by some leading Muslim chanting figures who discouraged us from taking this step," she said.
"Some told us that the voice of a woman is dishonorable. 'How can girls sing religious songs?' they said. But we challenged ourselves to make this band a success," Fathi added.
A shortage of time and money has also weighed on the choir's ambitions.
Fathi pays about 500 Egyptian pounds ($32) an hour to hire the studio, where she offers free weekly rehearsals lasting between three to five hours.
Still, choir members have had to pay for transport to attend rehearsals and about 50 concerts over the last four years.
That has worn down membership from 30 to only 10 at present.
"Most of them got married and started to take care of their families," said Fathi, adding that the women's husbands had not supported their membership of the group.
But despite the difficulties they face, Alhour's members are determined to keep going.
Some of the girls come to practice accompanied by their mothers, who listened with evident pride at the recent rehearsal, where conductor Ahmed Galal was the only man in the studio.
Fathi had struggled to find a female conductor for the choir and Galal offered to coach them for free.
Sondos Medhat, at 14 the group's youngest member, attended the practice with her mother, Amira, who shrugged off the notion that only men should perform "maqams."
"On the contrary, historically Muslim women have been part of the chanting and recitation field. Also, they're giving a special and unique flavor to the art, very different from that presented by men," the 45-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The group is busy rehearsing for a religious music festival next month and is also working on a remixed "maqam" about the Prophet Mohammad due to be released on video-sharing site YouTube later this year.
Fathi said she hoped one day to open her own singing school, despite the financial and bureaucratic hurdles.
"It has always been a dream for me to establish an academy to teach new generations of girls religious songs — an academy that can give feminine rhymes to Muslim chanting," she said.
($1 = 15.6957 Egyptian pounds)
(Reporting by Menna A. Farouk @MennaFarouk91; editing by Maya Gebeily and Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)