Turkey: Muslim women gain expanded religious authority

The Christian Science Monitor
Zuleyha Seker hardly seems like a rebel. But as one of 400 women preachers, known as vaizes, currently working in several of Turkey's state-run mosques, Ms. Seker is making waves.
"The vaizes like me are seen as revolutionaries in religious circles - we are always pushing for change," she says with a gentle smile.
Indeed, women have brought significant change to Turkey's Muslim order in recent years. Two years ago, women were appointed for the first time to lead groups of Turks making the pilgrimage to Mecca. And last year, Diyanet, a government body that oversees the country's mosques and trains religious leaders, added 150 women preachers across Turkey.

Now, Diyanet is selecting a group of women who will serve as deputies to muftis, or expounders of religious law. From this post, they'll monitor the work being done by imams in local mosques, particularly as it relates to women.

While these changes come in response to what Diyanet officials describe as a growing demand from women for more and better religious education, academics and Islamic intellectuals say these developments are also being forced by the rise of a new class of educated religious women who are demanding more rights within the country's Islamic milieu.

"Now, women are more educated, they participate more in social life, and they are mixing more with men, so they are demand- ing more," says Nevin Meric, a women's education expert at the Istanbul mufti's office. "Today they are aware of their rights and they are learning by reading and asking," she says.

Buket Turkmen, a sociologist at Istanbul's Galatasaray University who has studied the role of women in Turkish Islam, says that for many women who come from traditional homes where they would normally be limited in what they are allowed to do, religious education becomes a path to a certain kind of independence.

"It's very paradoxical, but by choosing Islam, they can gain their individuality and their emancipation. In this context, Islam means modernization," Ms. Turkmen says.

It's a path that more women seem to be exploring. In Istanbul, for example, the mufti's office has 583 women teaching courses on the Koran to women across the city. Women now also make up the majority of students in the theology departments of several Turkish universities.

Mehmet Gormez, Diyanet's deputy head, says the growing demand from women has forced Turkey's religious institutions to act. "In Islamic doctrine, men and women are equal. This should also be applied in practice," Mr. Gormez adds.

The changes begun by Diyanet appear to put Turkey in a leading position within the Islamic world on women's issues. "Turkey has been more open to [theological] change," says Yurdegul Mehmetoglu, a vice dean in the theology faculty at Istanbul's Marmara University.

While there are signs of loosening in Turkey, Muslim orthodoxy remains clear that women cannot lead prayers, particularly in the Arab Muslim heartland.

When Amina Wadud, an American Muslim and professor, announced that she would lead Friday prayers at an annex of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City last month, condemnation rang from orthodox circles. Sunni preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi of Qatar issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, saying "that leadership in prayer in Islam is reserved for men only," and warning that a women leading prayers might arouse men.

In early Islam, there were a number of female religious scholars. But women were eventually excluded from taking part in theological debates.

Gormez says Diyanet is hoping the vaizes and deputy muftis will act as advocates for women's issues in mosques, making them friendlier environments for other women.

As one of 18 vaizes in Istanbul, Seker, a university graduate in theology, doesn't actually lead prayers or give sermons in mosques. Instead, she helps organize seminars and teaches religious classes for women.

"In the past, [women] believed anything told to them by their older brother, father, or teacher. But as they are becoming more educated, they are coming up with more questions," she says. "We need new answers for new questions."

On a recent afternoon, though, Seker deals with the timeworn topics of tradition and prayer. Teaching in a community center in an Istanbul neighborhood, Seker tells the seven head-scarfed women that not all of the traditions they have been taught are necessarily part of Islam.

She brings up so-called honor killings - the murder of young women considered to have damaged a family's honor - that still take place in Turkey.

"There is no such thing in Islam, and to kill someone is considered to be the biggest sin," she tells the women, who sit motionless throughout her talk. She also encourages them to read the Koran more.

Seker acknowledges that her work might not sit well with the husbands of the women she teaches. "They feel like their throne is being shaken," she says.

* Staff writer Dan Murphy contributed to this report from Cairo.
(c) Copyright 2005 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.