Female Imams in Germany

The Call of the Muezzin Women

Women rarely become preachers of the Islamic faith. In Germany there are only 13 female imams. Their job: pastoral care and integration. Mosques are urgently in need of women providing such services. Ulrike Hummel reports

Professor Amina Wadud leads a friday prayer (photo: AP)
Religion in practice: in states like the USA, where Amina Wadud has been leading Friday prayers for some years, female imams are no longer an unusual phenomenon

​​ They lead prayers, give Koran lessons and do an enormous amount of counseling. Whether in New York, Cairo or Istanbul: female Imams are in high demand at the moment. And there is plenty of work for them in Germany as well. Even though leading Friday prayers in front of a mixed congregation is taboo for the women of the Islamic world, mosque members are happy to rely on the services of female preachers for other types of work. Zeynep Cesen is 50 years old and one of the very few female imams who have come to Germany from Turkey especially to attend to women within these congregations.

One of 13 in Germany

When the Muslim preacher Amina Wadud led a Friday prayer in New York before both female and male believers in March 2005, conservative Muslims both in the USA and abroad were up in arms. The work of female priests in Germany and Turkey is less spectacular.

Zeynep Cesen is one of 13 female imams currently working in Germany's Turkish mosques. She did her studies at the "Department of Islamic Theology" in Izmir and worked for 18 years as a preacher in Turkey before coming to Germany in 1994. At first she was in charge of supporting up to 51 congregations in Cologne and environs. Today she works exclusively for an umbrella association called the "Turkish-Islamic Union" (DITIB).

Help with integration

Although leading the Friday prayer ceremonies in the congregations is a task reserved for her male colleagues, Zeynep Cesen nonetheless has a wide variety of other tasks awaiting her attention. She focuses mostly on helping women in need: "They are generally young women who have come here from Turkey. We listen to their problems and try to find solutions," says Zeynep Cesen.

Young people are also offered assistance. For example, when girls have problems in school, they can voice their concerns and are then referred to the Department of Education and Culture.

From woman to woman

When she came to Germany in the early 1990s, her post was at first limited to six years. Today, however, Zeynep Cesen sees up to 100 woman a day. In addition to her pastoral duties, she has also developed her own form of preaching: She doesn't "talk down at people from the pulpit," but instead holds conversation circles with various women's groups, providing them with answers to religious questions. And everyday problems are by no means ignored.

Through her close contact with women of every age, Zeynep Cesen is able to reach out to groups that a male imam in Germany would never be available to. This is just one more reason why the "Turkish-Islamic Union" employs female imams, emphasizes DITIB spokeswoman Ayse Aydin: "Religious services and human needs cannot always be separated from one another." The goal is to serve the needs of the community. Part of this entails deliberately addressing women, responding to their questions and making them feel well-looked-after, explains Aydin.

Dialogue with Christians

The "Diyanet" state office for religious affairs in Turkey often lends a hand in selecting female theologians for the DITIB congregations. In 2002 a more intensive preparatory program was introduced for both female and male imams employed in Germany. Taking German and social studies courses at the Goethe Institute in Ankara helps lay the groundwork for their new duties. After all, they are expected to help their countrymen adapt to life in Germany.

For Zeynep Cesen, entering into a dialogue with her neighborhood is her contribution to this endeavor: "We need each other in good times and in bad, which is why we have to conduct a good dialogue with our German friends." She needs to set a good example for her congregation and be a source of inspiration, says Cesen. This includes for example making sure that Muslims and Christians wish each other "happy holidays," whether at Christmastime or for Ramadan. Or when a neighbor takes ill, then you have to go visit him, reminds Zeynep Cesen.

Important source of support

Through the intensive pastoral care she provides to women in the community, Zeynep Cesen is able to reach many Turkish families. She tries to show them possible ways of assimilating into German society. Women of every age, with a host of different social and personal problems, turn to her for help. Many of these women would not be able to open up to a male imam: "There are many things that women only want to share with other women," says Cesen. They need a warm and friendly atmosphere in order to feel comfortable talking about their own problems and issues.

The minister sees integration problems occurring mostly among young people in schools and training institutions. There is an urgent need to do something about this, explains Cesen. She appeals to both Turkish and German businesspeople to create more traineeships for youth. In addition, women of Turkish origin need help to assimilate successfully into society, Cesen urges.

When Zeynep Cesen speaks, many people in the community perk up their ears – also including non-Muslims and Germans. "She is also consulted by outsiders as well," confirms Ayse Aydin. "We are really proud of the work our female imam is doing here."

Training in Germany?

There are still very few female imams. This has to do with the fact that there is no theological training available yet for imams in Germany. The "Turkish-Islamic Union" would like to see German-trained theologians, and above all ones who speak German fluently.

Whether the union will be able to increase the number of female imams in Germany above the current 13 is unclear. Many Turkish mosques in Germany would welcome a female minister. And an increase in their ranks would certainly lighten the workload for Zeynep Cesen and her colleagues.

Ulrike Hummel

© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the Germany by Jennifer Taylor

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