In a small town north of Cairo, an Egyptian woman has quietly made history by becoming the first female marriage official in the Muslim world.
Although the job is clerical rather than religious — not unlike a registrar in Western society — her appointment shocked conservatives. But it has given hope to young Muslim women who feel frustrated by the lack of career choices offered to them.
The agricultural Sharkiya Governorate is not known as a hotbed of progressive activism in Egypt. But in the village of Enayat, a woman named Amal Suleiman, who just wanted a job befitting her education and skills, broke a longstanding custom that Muslim marriage contracts must be recorded by a maazoun, a male registrar. This fall, Suleiman added a new word to the Egyptian vocabulary when she became a maazouna, a female registrar.
In Suleiman's modest apartment, children dominate the scene. They seem used to the visits of reporters, now that their mother's story has flashed around the world. Suleiman says what started out as a simple job search turned into something she never would have predicted a year ago.
"I'm not only the first maazouna in Egypt, but in the Arab and even the Muslim world," she says. "In the very beginning, I was just looking for a suitable job for me as a wife and a mother, something to suit my time. And it came by mere accident that my husband's uncle was the maazoun in this area. So my husband — it was his idea to start with — he said, 'Why don't you apply for it?' "
Not sure how she would be received, Suleiman went to the provincial capital with her application. The clerk's reaction gave her some idea of what she was up against.
"His first reaction was complete objection," Suleiman says. "He felt, 'No, this woman should not be here doing this.' He revolted for his manhood."
But Suleiman had studied law at college, including sharia, or Islamic law, and she knew there was no explicit prohibition against women marriage officers. She took her case to the head of the provincial family court and was accepted, along with 10 male applicants. Much to the surprise of the local maazouns, Suleiman was chosen as the best qualified, and her name was passed on to Cairo, for the approval of the Ministry of Justice.
Months went by with no action. Finally, a well-known Egyptian columnist wrote an open letter to the justice minister, urging him to make a decision one way or the other. A week later, her appointment was announced.
Local journalists Ahman Mukhtar and Dalia Samir had been following Suleiman's story while planning their own wedding, set for next summer. Mukhtar says they moved up the signing of their marriage contract so they could be the first couple handled by Suleiman. Mukhtar has heard the grumbling from the male registrars, and he puts it down to jealousy or perhaps a more simple explanation.
"There is a saying here in Egypt that 'people could not find anything to criticize about a rose, so they criticized it for being red-cheeked,' " Mukhtar says.
For her part, Suleiman is surprised and somewhat amused to find people on the street greeting her like she's a cabinet minister, especially young women who are calling her a role model. She says she's no radical, but, to her mind, expanding career choices for Muslim women is simply a matter of common sense.
"I hope that in the future there will be a woman governor," Suleiman says. "I have seen a woman mayor, but I haven't seen a woman governor, and I hope that there is one in the future. Sometimes woman are as good as or better than men, in their wisdom, in the way that they judge things. It's not necessarily true that women are less wise than men in high leadership positions."
Suleiman's appointment has already had an impact — the United Arab Emirates just named its first female marriage official.