A campaign to make Istanbul’s roughly 3,100 mosques more welcoming for women could set off a gender revolution in Turkey’s places of Islamic worship – and one that may not be uniformly welcomed.
"This is about mosques being a space for women," declared Kadriye Avci Erdemli, Istanbul’s deputy mufti, the city's second most powerful administrator of the Islamic faith. "When a woman enters a mosque, she is entering the house of God and she should experience the same sacred treatment. In front of God, men and women are equal; they have the same rights to practice their religion."
As part of the "Beautification of Mosques for Women” project, Erdemli sent 30 teams to visit all of Istanbul's mosques and report back on the facilities for women. What the teams found was shocking, she claimed. "Many of the mosques have no toilets for women, no place for women to wash before praying,” Erdemli recounted. “Most of the places allocated for women were used as storage places, and those that weren't were usually filthy and freezing cold in winter."
Istanbul’s mosques are now under strict instructions to clean up and provide equal facilities for both men and women by February 2012. But it's not only a push for cleanliness and improved sanitation that is underway. The way mosques are arranged is also being changed, according to Erdemli. "In most mosques, the women's area was divided by a curtain or a wall, and this is not fair,” she elaborated. “They are sacred places and women have the right to take advantage of their spiritual feeling as well.”
Unlike men, women are not required under Islam to attend a mosque; their presence is allowed, but, traditionally, female Muslim believers have prayed more frequently at home. Practices, however, can vary from country to country, and from mosque to mosque. In Istanbul’s mosques, to reflect the beautification project’s goal of equal worship space, “all the curtains and walls are coming down,” Erdemli said. “But segregation will remain; men and children will pray in front of women.”
Starting in late December, inspections will start to check if mosques are complying with instructions. Since the program began in March, Erdemli has addressed over 5,000 of the city's imams and religious staff to explain the theological reason for why mosques are for women as much as they are for men. On the streets of Istanbul, there appears to be broad support for the program among religious women. "Sure, it would be beautiful. It would be much better," said one 30-year-old woman, who gave her name as Münevver. "In some places, the spaces for women are clean, but in others they are filthy."
The Diyanet, the state-run administrative body for Turkey’s mosques, has not only given its complete support to the project, but also provided a theological justification. In November, the head of the Diyanet, Mehmet Gomez, gave an uncompromising speech, in which he acknowledged the problem of misogyny in Islam. “There are some wrong, incomplete, biased interpretations that do not reflect the general principles of our noble religion," Hürriyet Daily News on December 7 reported Gomez as saying.
All are not happy with this gender revolution. "I hope all these increasing efforts are not aimed at removing the obstacles for a woman to come out of her home, and first go out to the mosque, and then to find a job; all by finding legitimacy within [the Islamic] religion," grumbled leading Islamic columnist Ali Bulac on December 3 in the Zaman newspaper.
The column provoked a storm of reaction. The outcry, interestingly, was louder coming from practicing Islamic women than from secular feminists. In her December 6 column for the daily Yeni Safak, Islamic columnist Ozlem Albayrak termed Bulac’s attitude a form of “persecution against women.”
The heated polemic is just the latest example of an important change in Turkish society. Istar Gozaydin, a law professor at Istanbul's Dogus University and an expert on the Diyanet, argues that the rise of a new conservative Islamic middle class on the coattails of the decade-long rule of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party has eased both formal and informal restrictions on Islamic women in education and state workplaces. "We see more and more women getting educated in the universities, more women in the workplace,” Gozaydin said. “They've been able to become more visible in society. And they want to be a part of the mosque system as opposed to praying at home."
Although the percentage of women in Turkey’s workplaces and university student bodies may appear relatively low, the figures are trending upward. A 2010 World Bank report on gender equality reported that 30 percent of Turkish women work. According to official data for the same year, women accounted for 44 percent of Turkish university students.
Erdemli has her sights on the Beautification of Mosques for Women project becoming an inspiration for the rest of Turkey. She maintains, though, that its goal is not revolution, but simply bringing the Muslim faith back to its roots. "All we are doing is taking Islam to back before it was corrupted and misinterpreted, when women and men were treated equally,” she said.
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.