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Ramadan is a month when many of us try to spend more time reading the Qur’an, or listening to recitations. I recently spoke to Zahra Khan about her efforts to draw more attention to recitations by women and girls.
KR: Can you describe the project?
ZK: The FITNA Women Reciters Ramadan Campaign is an online project sharing a daily pick for a video/audio of a woman reciting the Quran or the call to prayer/azaan during Ramadan. The campaign also encourages group members to record themselves reciting and share their media.
FITNA stands for the Feminist Islamic Troublemakers of North America. It is a recently formed organization providing a space for feminist Muslims to come together and collaborate on various projects, online and offline. Our name takes back the Arabic term fitna, variously translated as temptation/sedition/discord/corruption, which is often used to describe Muslim feminists by our detractors in the Muslim community. We hope to create constructive disruption around gender issues in the Muslim community.
Why did you think something like this was necessary?
I’ve been thinking about the idea of female reciters for a few years now. Initially, it was because I had been wanting to listen to more Quran recitation as part of a wellness strategy but I found it hard to listen to popular male reciters as I found their voices a little harsh. And I kept wishing I had a collection from a female reciter that was more soothing and relaxing.
Since last year, I have been working on the problem of #allmalepanels in the Muslim community so I’ve been paying more attention to spaces available for women to share religious knowledge and related talents. Last year I also encountered the #addafemalereciter campaign by Jerusha Tanner Lamptey to petition a popular Quran app to include women reciters and started thinking more about the idea of women’s voices as “awrah” that’s often used to criticize the notion of women reciting the Quran in public and sometimes even public speaking. I felt that this sexualizing of women’s religious activities and of denying us platforms to share religious knowledge in the Muslim community needed to be challenged.
Recently, I heard an amazing azaan/call to prayer recitation by a woman which blew me away and spurred me to start this small Ramadan project.
What has been your own experience seeing/hearing female reciters in your life?
Although I grew up in Muslim majority countries, I started exploring Islam more in college and beyond while living in Canada and the US. In our communities here, apart from some Quran competitions for children where girls are allowed to participate (sometimes in a single gender environment), I have not heard much about women reciters being provided platforms to share their talents.
Can you describe the videos you’ve included? Are there particular trends that stand out? Are there any that have surprised you?
As I started looking for videos to post, I was pleasantly surprised to find the range of Muslim communities which seem to have strong traditions of women reciters. My goal was to not focus only on finding the voices that sounded best to my ear but on exploring the diversity of women reciters. I tried to include recitations from women from different countries and of different ethnicities, recitation styles, ages, experience levels and also recitations from different settings.
I did observe some trends in the videos available online: some countries like Malaysia are way better at being open to women reciting in public. Also it seems more people are comfortable with young girls reciting than adult women judging by the search results.
Have you gotten any comments from people submitting videos to you, about how they feel about the project? Or from people who have watched the videos?
I’ve received positive comments from several people on the recitation posts. My favourite story is of my friend Eren Cervantes-Altamirano posting that she’d discovered that her cat Sugar preferred female reciters after playing videos from this campaign compared to times when she played videos of male reciters which caused her cat to hide under the bed.
Have you had any trouble finding videos?
Surprisingly to me, I was able to find a lot of videos of women reciters from around the world but few from North America.
What have you learned through seeing the videos? Was there anything you didn’t expect?
One of my major takeaways has been that Quran recitation by women is far more common around the world than one would expect going by mainstream experiences in Canadian and American Muslim spaces.
What has been the impact of the project?
I personally feel very heartened about fighting for increasing women’s participation in Muslim events including public speaking and recitation after working on this project. Seeing amazing spaces for women reciters such as popular TV shows in Muslim majority countries shows it can be done.
Do you have any favourite videos? Why?
1. This is the video that inspired me to start the project. It’s simply the most moving call to prayer I’ve ever heard.
2. This video is from the 2013 ISNA convention, one of the largest annual gathering of Muslims in North America. This is a favourite of mine since it’s the first time ISNA has had a woman reciting in public which I think is really meaningful and gives me a lot of hope.
3. I’m saving this one for the end of Ramadan as a fun finale. The reciter is a tremendously talented tiny tot from Indonesia with her unique style of acting out the meanings of the verses in addition to reciting. I’ve not only been dying over the sheer cuteness but am immensely impressed by such a young girl being able to memorize the words and the meanings of the Quran so well.
4. This video was suggested by a FITNA group member and it’s one of my favourites because although I’ve seen conversations in ASL, I’d never seen an ASL recitation of the Quran before and the reciter is simply graceful.
5. This last one was hard to choose out of so many great recitations but I’m choosing this short one because I find it to be really soothing, musical, cheerful and moving all at once.
Zahra is an aerospace engineer and Muslim feminist living in Cambridge, MA in the US. She recently started the group Feminist Islamic Troublemakers of North America (https://www.facebook.com/groups/herecomesthefitna/) to work on building collaborations of activists spreading FITNA (sedition/temptation/discord/corruption) aka feminist ideas and projects in Muslim communities. She likes space exploration, Quran recitations in female voices and smashing the patriarchy.