By Razak Ahmad
A FORTHCOMING Islamic reality television show in Malaysia aims to find the best women preachers and change conservative mindsets on the role of women in Muslim societies.
The 13-episode prime time programme titled "Solehah", an Arabic word meaning "pious female", is a talent contest that will feature charismatic young Muslim women judged by clerics on their religious knowledge as well as their oratory skills and personality.
Although Islam allows both men and women to preach the religion to society, the field remains dominated by males in most Muslim countries, something the show's producers in this mainly Muslim but multi-religious Southeast Asian country hope to change.
"If American Idol can help their contestants develop as singers, our show aims to help Muslim women develop as Islamic preachers," said Zulkarnaen Mokhtar, brand manager at the private television station which produces the show.
The show will start airing in October and follows on the heels of the hit Islamic themed show "Imam Muda" or "Young Imam", which is shown on a rival TV station and seeks the best Imam or male Muslim leader. Imam Muda is set to enter its second season.
The television station said earlier in a statement that it had seen there was a dearth of reality TV shows catering to women and religion.
"Solehah aims to be a show that provides religious education informally while acknowledging the role of women in the development of Islam," it added.
The women are being judged by their ability mainly to "da'wah", an Arabic word literally meaning to spread Islam. In practise it mainly means delivering religious lectures to an audience of Muslims to get them to be better Muslims.
The first day of two days of auditions for Solehah, open to Muslim women aged between 20 to 30, was held in the capital city on Saturday and drew a group of women clad in colourful headscarves.
They were tested by a selection panel on skills including reciting the Quran and delivering impromptu three-minute religious lectures on the responsibility of Muslims to help victims of natural disasters. Amie Sofia Ahmad, 25, an Egypt-trained Quranic studies graduate, said some conservative Muslims frown upon Muslim women appearing and promoting themselves so openly on television.
"But we live in a modern world and television can be an important medium to spread the religion so why should we continue to remain in the background?" she said.
Prizes have yet to be decided. The prize for the Imam Muda men's programme are a job as an imam, or mosque leader, a car, a cash prize of RM30,000 ($12,219), and a four-year scholarship to Al-Madinah University in Saudi Arabia.