Female Preachers in Turkey

Challenging Traditional Gender Roles

Religious authorities have recently appointed 450 women as preachers. Vaize, as there are called, are more senior than Imams and, like all other authoritative positions, have been the domain of men. Dorian Jones reports

Along with the appointment of women Vaize, women are also starting to be placed in other senior positions of the Muslim religion. The appointments are made by Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate, which controls the Islamic faith in Turkey, and also tries to improve women's rights.

At the Kazimpasha Mosque children are arriving for a media course run by the Imam. The course provides an opportunity for mothers to attend a weekly meeting of spiritual advice and education from the local Vaize.

Vaize hold meetings like this throughout the Muslim would, but here it is very different. This week's meeting is being given by a woman.

Gender-related issues and the exploitation of women

Talking over some last minute preparations with the local Imam, 28-year-old Zuleyha Seker is one of the 450 women Vaizes appointed by Turkey's religious affairs directorate, or Diyanet. Zuleyha Seker, just like her male counterparts, is a theology graduate.

Addressing a dozen women this week, Zuleyha Seker is talking about bringing up children stressing that men also have responsibilities.

Her classes cover a range of subjects including contentious subjects like honour killings, much of her discussions deal with gender-related issues and the exploitation of women. She says there is much work to do to address Muslim women's rights, but sees the appointment of women Vaize as a crucial step forward.

"It's very important to solve the problems of Islam. Women face exploitation in the western world too, but in the Islamic world that exploitation is legitimized through religion", Seker argues. "There are many wrong traditions and misinterpretations of Islam in relation to women. Because women learn Islam through men, their fathers their husbands and Imams in mosques. So they hear the male point of view of Islam. But there is a need of a female perspective."

After the meeting, speaking to those attending, Zuleyha appears to have only too willing converts.

"It's much easier to communicate woman to woman," one of the attendants tells us. "We can talk about everything, things we which we cannot talk to a man. Before, with the Imam, we just listen to what he says. Now we can bring issues here to discuss with her."

Improving women's rights

Until last year there was less than a dozen women Vaizes throughout Turkey, and their role was largely symbolic. But the appointment of 450 women Vaize by the Diyanet is part of wider policy of improving woman's rights.

Plans are afoot to appoint women deputy muftis which are responsible for running religion affairs on a local level. Istanbul's Mufti Professor Mustafa Cagrici, who himself was appointed recently, says that he himself is part of a new generation running the Muslim faith in Turkey.

"Women have always been treated as second-class citizens, not only in the eastern world, but also the west. But there are different levels of abuse in different cultures," Cagrici says. "I am a great advocate of women's rights as a value."

Window dressing or fundamental change of values

But not everyone is convinced. Professor Istar Gozaydin of Istanbul's technical university has written extensively on the Diyanet. She says that the reforms are little more than window dressing unless fundamental attitudes change.

"It's just a show off, I guess", Gozaydin says. "First of all, the religious authority in Islam is very male dominated. And the women preachers may have some sort of authority over the women believers, but I strongly doubt over the male ones. I don't think that the men will be willing to share that domination."

"Mosques are for men, not for women"

At Ilhan Mosque in central Istanbul the daily sermon is being given by the local Imam, the words are attentively listened by the attending men.

"It's not normal, mosques are for men, not for women," one of the visitors asserts. "Women need to stay at home and look after the children. This is against the Koran, it's not natural that women to have a place in religious affairs. Men and women have their own different roles and places and they shouldn't be mixed."

Zuleyha Seker confirms the fact that there is still deep-rooted opposition amongst Turkey's males against women taking positions of religious authority. She says she herself regular encounters prejudice.

"When the Imams come to the mosque some welcome me but others always disappear before I arrive because they don't want any contact with me. And at the main office, even though the Mufti himself is beyond these issues and is very enlightened, there are others who avoid any eye contact with me, they always look at the computer, the ceiling or even their feet. They can't accept me, as I am a woman who has religious authority. They cannot accept it."

"But it's all to do with the family and how there men are brought up," she goes on to say. "What I can do is to train my son and educate women to train their children in a different way. It really depends on the future generation and how women bring up their children."

Women against women Imams

The call to prayer. The Imam is for many believers the most male of prerogatives. In the US there was outrage when a woman, Amina Wadud, took the role of an Imam and led prayers. Similar feelings are shared even by the women who Zuleyha Seker teaches.

"There can not be a woman Imam," a woman says, adding it is not in Islam. "Our prophet Mohammed didn't permit that. There is no woman Imam in our religion."

Such resentments don't surprise Zuleyha Seker. She says it's just another indication that she has more work to do, arguing the controversy is less to do with theology and more to do with wider prejudices towards women in society.

"If Mohammed would come out in a different time or even in our contemporary world, the position of woman could have been different. These ideas have to be re-evaluated over and over again and should be presented from different perspectives. It is not only related to the religious philosophy but even more so to the social acceptances. And that is our role as women to help change society."

Dorian Jones

© DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE 2005

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