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Turkey’s Mosques: Women vs. Men | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Istanbul, Asharq Al-Awsat – For many Turks it was inconceivable that the day would come in which they would enter a mosque to find a woman delivering lessons on Islam to both men and women. But this is what has happened. Today in Turkey, there are more than 450 religious female preachers delivering their religious lessons in mosques alongside the men.

And yet, not everyone was pleased with this decision or with the Presidency of Religious Affairs in Turkey, which is affiliated to the Council of Ministers, to appoint women as assistants to muftis in hope of appointing the first Turkish female mufti, and someday; a woman to lead prayers. In this atmosphere, anything is acceptable except for women becoming Imams. Those who were shocked by the appointment of women as preachers in mosques or as assistants to muftis frequently upheld that “mosques are intended for men”. However, those who advocated these changes, which have taken place over the past five years, have said that these changes are part of the vitality of “Turkish Islam”, pointing out that, “Islam in Turkey is responding to the needs of society and developments and that there is no justification in Islam to restrict religious authority to men.”

Activists from the Turkish Women’s Movement said, “We always learn about Islam through men, whether it is the father, husband, teacher or Imam. Women are rarely given the opportunity to teach Islam although many of them have as much knowledge of religious matters as their male counterparts.”

Whenever you ask any Turk about what makes Turkish Islam more distinctive than Islam in other Muslim countries, the response is usually that when Islam entered Turkey, it immediately influenced, and was impacted by Turkish culture, history and the nature of the country  and this remains to be an ongoing process. When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decided, following the constitutional reforms of the revolution, to place all religious affairs under the control of the state, including religious education and even Quranic schools in small villages, he firmly established the idea that religion is a personal matter with no relation to the state or official and government institutions and that religion should not be exploited to serve the purposes of any factions or groups.

The outcome of the strict rules laid down by Ataturk meant that one would never find a Turkish preacher or imam issuing a fatwa [religious ruling] that contradicts the Turkish constitution and laws. Polygamy is prohibited according to the law even though it is does exist in some remote villages. “Polygamy is legally prohibited, but also in Islam, it is not desirable as there are specific conditions, including equal treatment [between the wives] and other related conditions that make it very difficult and not recommended,” Sheikh Mohsen Cortolomus the Imam of a mosque in Istanbul told Asharq Al-Awsat.

As for the veil, it remains a personal matter; however, it is prohibited in government institutions. Many Turkish clerics said this protected the state and Islam from being exploited. They advocate that there is no contradiction between what is mentioned in religious schools and universities, which gradually were active again in Turkey after Ataturk had cancelled all forms of religious education during the 1920s.

Religious schools and colleges resumed teaching after the first democratic elections in Turkey in 1950. In a bid to win votes, the government of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Ataturk’s party, brought back religious education before the elections in an attempt to avoid defeat by the liberal opposition. One of the decisions taken by the government at that time was to allow religious lessons to be taught in primary schools if parents made a formal request to teach their children about Islam. At a later stage, the law was amended so that teaching religion became an ordinary lesson as long as parents were in agreement. Consequently, teaching religion has become generalized in all Turkish schools.

Over that same period, Islamic schools rapidly began to expand and in order to proceed in line with the same educational philosophy in Turkey, the authorities classified Islamic schools as “functional”, that is, with the goal of graduating imams and muftis. Additionally, women were allowed to join these schools although at that point they were not allowed to serve as muftis or religious preachers. Students could enroll at Islamic schools at the secondary level but soon it commenced at the primary stage where students could study the Arabic language, the Holy Quran, Hadith (prophetic traditions) and jurisprudence. The first faculty of religious sciences was inaugurated in Ankara in 1950.

Initially, the military encouraged these Islamic schools on the grounds that they would protect it and Turkey from any communist uprising during the Cold War. Following the coup on September 12, 1980, teaching of religion became compulsory in all schools but after the Islamic Refah Partisi (Welfare Party) won the elections in 1996 and its leader Necmettin Erbakan formed the government, the military became concerned and felt threatened.

After Erbakan’s government was overthrown, the military closed down religious schools at the preparatory level, entirely cancelling out the preparatory stage and extended compulsory primary education from five to eight years. As for the religious secondary schools specializing in graduating preachers and muftis, strict measures were taken and they were only allowed to admit a number of students to meet the needs of appointing imams and preachers in mosques. Moreover, rules were tightened on Quranic lessons for children and obtaining a license for Quranic lessons became very difficult.

Following the 1980 coup, to have control over universities, the authorities decided to subject all universities to the Supreme Council of Education and to tighten control over student activity. Additionally, it was forbidden to build any Islamic universities and all religious positions were controlled, as the appointment of imams and muftis was left to the Religious Affairs Directorate.

Sheikh Mohsen Cortolomus said, “We have 8,000 imams. In each Turkish city, there are muftis and their delegates and imams and their delegates. In each province of the greater cities, there are muftis under the authority of the grand mufti of that city, in addition to Quran lessons in each religious department, and imams affiliated to the Ministry of Education whose task is to teach and train the new imams in the Turkish religious colleges.”

Sheikh Mohsen also pointed out that the Friday sermon varies in accordance with current events and added that the last Friday sermon he delivered was on the subject of human rights. He explained that he based his information on the Holy Quran and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, because of these ideas that have been consolidated over the past 80 years, and due to the state’s close surveillance of religious education in all its forms and stages, a special relationship was established between the Turks and religion.

In Turkey, it is rare to see mosques full of worshippers except during Friday prayer. The average number of worshippers in any mosque during weekdays [other than Friday] ranges from 20 to 30. “I pray during Ramadan, however, I consider myself a Muslim. It is one’s actions and behavior that counts. I always go to Europe and I have friends. I do not believe that this would make me a bad Muslim,” said Mohamed, a Turkish youth who works in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. He pointed out that many young Turks live their lives in a similar manner to their European peers and that “just as some young European men go to church on a holy day or religious occasion, Turkish men visit mosques too.”

The rise in the number of women wearing the hijab in Turkey varies in accordance with the ‘region’ in question to a large extent. There are regions in Ankara and Istanbul where it is rare to see veiled women while in other places it is rare to see unveiled women.

Sheikh Mohsen Cortolomus told Asharq Al-Awsat, “Turkish Islam may be more flexible with regards to some issues. We are also Europeans and religious fundamentalism is weak in our eyes. When the Turks embraced Islam, it was quickly and easily achieved because many components of the Turkish personality were harmonious with the teachings and spirit of Islam. The Turks accepted the sacredness and status of Islam without any pressure. For example, Turkey’s Shia population is different to that of Iran. In Turkey, people do not enter mosques in order to discuss politics; rather they visit mosques to ask about what is lawful and what is prohibited. Notwithstanding, there is a large number of worshippers during Friday prayers, there is more orientation towards religion. Young men and women sometimes come to the mosque and sit to listen to prayer without necessarily performing it and we do not object to this. Belief is not just prayer; it is also behavior.”

Cortolomus added, “The Presidency of Religious Affairs set up 24-hour telephone lines two years ago whereby people could get in touch and ask about fatwas related to any subject. Those who are responsible for answering the questions are graduates from religious faculties in Turkey who have been trained.”

In Turkey today, there is an increasing interest in religion; for example, there has been a rise in the number of veiled women. More prominently, there was the Islamist victory in the elections and women are seeking to compete with men in the field of religious authority, which is unusual.

In Hyderabad, south India, three female muftis were appointed to a mosque in September 2003. At that time, many Turkish women were asking why this wasn’t happening in Turkey. In the same year, the pioneering female delegates to muftis were first appointed in Istanbul and then in Ankara and Izmir, which are the most liberal cities in Turkey. These appointments were made shortly after Ali Bardakoglu was elected as head of the Presidency of Religious Affairs in November 2002 and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) formed the government for the first time. Bardakoglu, a conservative reformist, believed that ordinary people need modern and enlightened muftis and that gender is not significant.

With respect to appointing women as muftis, he stated, “There is nothing in Islam that prevents women from becoming muftis as they have occupied important religious positions throughout Islamic history,” pointing out that female mufti assistants have the right to issue fatwas. Meanwhile, Anwar Muazam, former head of the Islamic studies department in the Turkish university of Osmania said, “There is not one verse in the Holy Quran or any Prophetic tradition that prevents women from becoming muftis.”

It cannot be said that these transformations have taken place under pressure from Turkish civil society against the will of the state. In fact, the Turkish state itself supports the appointment of female preachers in mosques and mufti delegates. The Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs is exclusively responsible for all religious matters. Religious employees in Turkey are considered civil or public servants who are affiliated to the presidency; they amount to 80,000 personnel and the overwhelming majority is men. As evidence of the extension of the powers of the Presidency of Religious Affairs, suffice it to mention that it covers the expenses of all Turkish mosques, inside and outside of Turkey, from the electricity bills to the salaries of Imams. Female preachers are compelled to deal with social reactions to their positions and are exposed to both negative and positive reactions from those who attend the lessons that they deliver.

Today, Turkey is home to over 450 female preachers, including 18 in Istanbul. Female preachers graduate from religious universities in the same way their male counterparts do. The female preacher sits in the center of the mosque with hundreds of men and women around her and discusses a particular subject. There are weekly lists of subjects for discussion (as determined by the Ministry of Religious Affairs).

Zulaikha Shaker, 27, began to preach after a short training period with the imam of a mosque. The first subject that she tackled was on the role of parents and the psychological pressures from which children may suffer. Other subjects that are examined include honor crimes, balancing between life and commitment to religious values and duties within the family, among others. Many of those who take part in Zulaikha’s talks say that it offers them “an opportunity for dialogue”, while with male preachers, women only sit and listen without exchanging opinions with them, which is the major difference.

However, many men in Turkey do not agree that women should be given such roles within the religious realm and believe that the female role in preaching and issuing fatwas causes confusion within society since people are not used to entering mosques and finding women delivering religious lessons. Moreover, there are many among Turkish men who maintain that, “Women have their own roles that are distinct from those of men.”

Zulaikha recognizes that her job as a preacher is not an easy one and that she is subjected to discrimination because of the prevalent image of women’s relationship with the religious authority. She complained that “When imams come to the mosques in which I have been appointed, some of them welcome me but many of them rush out after prayer because they do not want to meet me. Even inside the headquarters of Dar Al Ifta in Istanbul, even though the mufti is a very enlightened person, there are still those who avoid any contact with me. Some of them look at the computer screen, the ceiling or their feet because they cannot bear to acknowledge the presence of a woman with religious authority like men.”

She continued, “I look forward to the future when this outlook would change.” But even some women do not welcome the idea of female muftis or preachers, Zulaikha said, “Many women say that the notion of a women’s imamate does not exists in Islam and that the Prophet Mohammed did not appoint female imams in his era.”

As well as becoming assistants to muftis and preachers, women began to take on the role of teaching the Holy Quran. In Dar al Ifta in Istanbul, there are 583 women teaching the Quran in the affiliated schools which it supervises over and organizes. What is interesting, however, is that the number of women studying in Islamic faculties or universities in Turkey is on the rise. Today, female students constitute the majority in Islamic departments at religious universities. Women’s desire to participate in the religious field and the obstacles that this entails have sparked a debate in Turkish society, not only regarding Islam, but also in terms of the social perception of women and their role in society.

Istanbul’s Mufti argued that, “Not only have women always been treated as second-class citizens in the East, but also in the West. However, there are varying forms of discrimination against women, which differ according to the difference in cultures. I am an enthusiastic supporter of women’s rights.”

The Mufti of Istanbul wants to do more and many women’s organizations in Turkey believe that not enough action has been taken. But clerics in Turkey are not entirely free as somewhere down the line, they are governmental employees and are not allowed to issue fatwas that contradict Turkish laws or make statements that are inconsistent with these laws. For example, if you asked a Turkish imam or mufti about the veil and whether it is voluntary or compulsory, you would not be given an answer. Also, if you asked about the lawfulness of polygamy, many would reply, “Ask the mufti or the Presidency of Religious Affairs.”