Turkey – Women Demand Safer, Cleaner Spaces in Mosques

attend Friday prayers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in the courtyard
of Sultanahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey.
REUTERS/Murad Sezer
Pinar Tremblay – April 26, 2018
In October 2017, a group of Muslim women
launched a campaign on social media called Women in Mosques with the hashtag
#kadinlarcamilerde. The group announced an invitation for weekly gatherings at
a mosque in Istanbul to discuss women’s access to prayer halls.
These gatherings aim to correctly diagnose
the problems women face at mosques and discuss possible solutions. They
highlight the most important problem as inadequate spaces reserved for women while the
most unorganized and dirty spaces are wrongly seen as appropriate for women.
How women are received at mosques differs, as
each mosque has a different design and size. Ideally, mosques — just like
Turkish baths — should have separate entrances for men and women. In some
cases, women and kids are allotted space in the balcony area where they can
still see the imam and the congregation and pray under the same roof. However,
as the Women in Mosques campaign has documented, that is not always the case.
Sometimes the upstairs is locked or unavailable. In some instances, the stairs
are so steep that it becomes a safety concern — particularly for children
and the elderly.
The hardship starts from the moment women
decide to pray. The bathrooms — essential for ablution prior to
prayers — that are reserved for women are frequently locked or out of
order in many mosques.
In several mosques, women are escorted
outside and told to pray in a closeted area away from the prayer section. These
areas are rarely used, frequently cold, dirty, dark and overall quite
unwelcoming for any sort of prayer or meditation. The group asks for the right
to pray under the same roof with men at mosques, where there are soft, clean
carpets and the sermon can actually be heard. The idea of praying in the mosque
is to feel part of the congregation. In some mosques, that would not be a
Indeed, major cities provide quite nice
bathrooms and prayer sections for women. Based on personal observations since
2012, significant improvements regarding women’s access to mosques have been
made. Still, reception of female worshippers varies from one mosque to another.
The photos, videos and their narratives shared on the group’s website help
explain why the majority of women still prefer to pray at home.
It is indeed a vicious circle. “Because most
women do not come to mosques, most mosques are not welcoming to the women,”
said an imam in Ankara who gave his name as Hasan. It is quite intriguing that
with hundreds of mosques named after Ottoman Sultan’s mothers, sisters,
wives or daughters, these places are not worship spaces for families.
Berrin Sonmez, a scholar and an observant
Muslim, expressed strong conviction that women should join in the Friday
prayers — also called Salat ul Juma, the most important prayer of the week
— with the congregation at mosques. Yet she and several others said
women reading the Quran have been asked to leave prior to Friday prayers so
that men can take over the women’s quarters for the service. Sonmez also
emphasized that because of seclusion from the congregation, women in Turkey do
not get to learn mosque etiquette or culture. Her insistence to join the
congregation has produced different results over the years. She said that for
other prayer sessions, while the mosque has only a handful of male
participants, women may still be asked to leave or told to pray outside the
The Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate
(Diyanet) has been launching one campaign
after another to make mosques more women-friendly over the last decade. They
should be applauded for encouraging women to join Friday prayers with
announcements of the names of mosques that have women’s sections. Increasing
the number of Muslim tourists and refugees who are accustomed to attending
mosque services is also crucial in big cities.
Zehra Yilmaz, author of the 2015 book “Female Piety: The Evolution
of Islamist Women’s Movement,” explains the debate about equal access to
mosques between two genders. Yilmaz details in her book that while the Diyanet
has been trying to make mosques more women-friendly, most religious orders in
Turkey would rather not.
Members of the Women in Mosques campaign
have been working diligently for the last eight months, but they did not
receive the attention of society at large until April 4 via BBC programming in Turkish. The women have been
organizing solidarity prayer sessions at mosques that aren’t yet friendly to
women. Among all of their statements, one sentence generated an uproar on
social media. One of the members was quoted as saying, “We can work together [with
men]; we can study together. But in the mosque, we are told to stand back.”
Women are expected to pray not in front or next to men but behind them, so as
not to tempt them during worship. Most of the comments were angry and
inflammatory toward the campaign in the conservative media.
Al-Monitor contacted the group and asked
for clarification or comment on the public reactions to this specific
point. The group declined a response, stating it is not providing press
releases at this time.
Hilal Kaplan, a columnist
for Sabah, a Turkish daily supportive of the ruling Justice and Development
Party (AKP), wrote a piece in which she concurred with the group about its
grievances and said that the Diyanet could be doing more to make mosques
women-friendly; however, she did not agree that demanding to pray side by side
was permissible. The demand to curtail gender-based segregation is not new. In
her book, Yilmaz provides an example of a
member of the Muslim nongovernmental organization MAZLUMDER stating that
“this kind of strict separation of genders at mosques is not needed since
we cohabit all walks of life with men in public.”
Gamze Gursoy, spokeswoman on behalf of the
Radical Change Journal’s women’s branch — which is affiliated with Turkey’s
far-right Hizb-ut Tahrir — was clear in her objection to the campaign. Gursoy
agreed that the logistics issues with regard to women’s access to mosques
were real, but sge said these issues are administrative and could easily be handled
by the Diyanet. Gursoy told Al-Monitor, “Danger lurking behind the call for
reform in Islam is serious. What will be next? Demanding female imams?
Accepting same-sex relationships? Renewing rules of hijab [the Islamic dress
code for women]?” Gursoy also highlighted that this campaign was against Muslim
women and did not represent the majority of Muslim women. Gursoy’s views were
echoed by dozens of other pious women Al-Monitor spoke with off the record. It
would be safe to assume that most women in Turkey do not demand or accept coed
prayer sessions.
Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a renowned human
rights activist in Turkey, told Al-Monitor this campaign could be rather
beneficial for society. Gergerlioglu said there are accounts from the
first caliphs — 1,400 years ago — that women were a part of the
congregation; there is a recorded instance where Caliph Omar accepts his
mistake during a sermon upon the warning of a woman.
Gergerlioglu emphasized that despite all the uproar on social media, the
campaign is not about men and women praying next to each other but rather for
both genders to have equal access to the mosques. It is refreshing to have
men express solidarity on such a matter in Turkey. Gergerlioglu also conveyed
his hope that the campaign will evolve into a social movement.
It is particularly important that for decades
Islamist policies in Turkey had to battle a secular establishment that prohibited
women with headscarves from accessing public spaces such as schools or
public employment. There have been gradual yet important improvements, and
today — even in the military — women are free to wear
headscarves. So it is quite interesting that after years of battling for access
to the public domain, women are still facing obstacles about access to mosques
in a Muslim majority country.
There is hope, after all. The Women in
Mosques campaign keeps growing strong, undeterred by all the misled
criticism. The Diyanet is turning
mosques into not only places of worship, but also into learning and sports
centers for children, youth and the elderly of both genders. Another sign of
hope is the soon-to-open mega mosque Camlica on one of the
most impressive hills of Istanbul. Designed by female architects, it
features rooms for nursing moms and sizable prayer areas within the mosque
reserved for female worshippers.