Egypt Independent

Azhar’s first mixed gender, religious singing group aims to change perception of sex segregation



What started off as a personal dream for the President of Azhar’s Activity Committee Ebtissam Zeidan became a reality. Thanks to Azhar’s revolutionary steps to promote sex integration, approving the first gender mixed Inshad (religious singing in Islam) group.

“The idea was to introduce the concept to create competitive student activity bodies,”  Zeidan told Al-Ahram, “We want to compete and achieve primary places in competitions.”

The team formation serves as a huge leap forward for the religious entity’s openness. It was expected that the idea would draw in harsh criticism by the entity’s heads, yet through the support of Azhar’s president and Sheikhs the group was warmly welcomed.

Before this move, Azhar has not expressed objection towards men and women being in the same entities. Egypt’s ex-Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa issued  “Fatwa 2284” (religious ruling) declaring that men and women were encouraged to mingle if it serves a noble purpose. Azhar’s Inshad groups, however, have always comprised men or women only.

After gaining the board’s approval, Zeidan toured faculties across the university,  scouting for talents to join to her team in an effort to compete by the annual competition which took place in October 2017.

The selection process was not easy though, Zeidan told Al-Ahram; out of 600 applicants, 16 talented young men and women were selected to join the group as soloists, while 25 students made up the choir team. Zeidan explained that all those selected were trained by the hands of professional musicians including conductor Hassan Fekry and Professor of Music in Helwan University, Dr. Nahla Bakeer.

Regarding the challenge of presenting art that does not taint religious boundaries, Zeidan said she was determined on presenting conservative music that abides by Azhar principles including Inshad as well as classical, religious and patriotism songs. Examples of songs that have been sung by the group are “Beit Al-Ezz Ya Betna” (Our Lovely Home), “Ya A3’la Esm Fi Al Wogood” (The World’s Most Precious Name) and “Leeh Tshghl Balak Leeh” (Why Worry?).

Zeidan added that a top priority for the group was choosing the correct outfit, especially for girls, whose outfits were mainly long, baggy dresses in addition to veils that fully cover the hair.

While Azhar has abundant talent, some students went through struggles to pursuit their passion.

Omnia Kamal, a 21-year-old Azhar student, told Al-Masry Al-Youm, about the obstacle she faced to join the Inshad group due to her father refusal, “He (her father) considers the move a deviation from the family’s principles, as well as a waste of time and effort. My mother, however, encouraged me to join the singing group as long as I maintained boundaries with my male colleges and chose purposeful songs.”

Kamal added the group helped her rediscover herself as an artist, “It is a wonderful feeling to rediscover oneself and I will not stop.”

Another student, Mohamed Salem faced a different challenge in passing the auditions, “A colleague told me that the university opened a new type of student activity which is singing. Prior to that, all activities were limited to visual arts. I then went through a series of severely competitive exams to be chosen for the group,” Salem told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Since then, the team has competed in several competitions winning some impressive awards. Currently, the group is preparing to take part in the Arts Center competition set for the beginning of August, under the auspices of the Youth and Sports Ministry.

Last April, the Inshad group took part in Azhar University’s first Innovation Festival. The group performed in front of Azhar President Sheikh Abbas Shouman, Azhar University Dean Mohamed Al-Mahrasawi as well as several Azhar and Azhar University leaders.

During his speech at the festival, Shouman stressed on the religious entity’s support for embracing arts, “Azhar does not go against arts and creativity, and keeps itself relevant to society and its problems. We, Azhar and artists, can collaborate to improve general taste. We are not against each other.”

Azhar University is an educational entity associated directly with Al-Azhar, Egypt’s and the Middle East’s most prestigious Sunni entity. It is Egypt’s oldest degree-granting university in addition to being one of the oldest universities in the world.