Wanted: Women-friendly mosques in Turkey

Wanted: Women-friendly mosques in Turkey

A dear friend from Cairo who is currently visiting Istanbul emailed me recently. She said they – her sister, mother and two nieces – attempted to join the Salat-ul Jum’a (Friday prayers) along with the rest of the family in a mosque nearby.

Her email read,” I am in the mosque, where are all the women?” I tried to explain to her that women do not traditionally attend Friday prayers in Turkey. Her question bothered me, “Why do not women in Turkey attend Salat-ul Jum’a or Salat-ul-Eid (Friday prayers or Eid prayers)?” From Tunisia to Yemen, women pray on Fridays and for Eid in mosques along with men. Juma prayers are not obligatory for women, but still the tradition of having no women join in the prayer at mosques is surprisingly unique to Turkey. The question of women’s mosque attendance can provide insights into many political movements in a country. Although I have been advised by some “Islamist” friends not to bother with this petty issue, I believe the question is ripe to open for a public discussion. There are several public spaces observant Muslim women struggle to enter and be a part of in Turkey, oddly mosques are no exception. 

First of all, the Directorate of Religious Affairs has done an amazing job recently of hiring more women preachers to accommodate women’s needs as well as trying to generate more space for women worshippers in mosques and masjids. However, Turkey still differs significantly from other Muslim-majority countries when it comes to the participation of women in congregational mosque services. To cite just one example, in Egypt, women began demanding the right to participate in congregational mosque services as early as 1911. Turkish women have never been completely excluded from the mosques, however in practice it is very unconventional and rather difficult for many of them to attend daily and Friday congregational prayers. Mosque spaces are not welcoming for women. The Istanbul mufti has recently started an initiative to “make room” for women in mosques, but government efforts alone are not sufficient.

While trying to understand why women do not attend the Friday or Eid congregational services I have compiled a brief, in no way complete, list of reasons. The most frequently heard reason is: It is not “in our tradition.” I find this blanket reasoning important but rather impertinent. When you question the causes of tradition you see there are very valid reasons for women not to frequent mosques. I believe many women, especially the dynamic young women who spend most of the day out of their homes due to work responsibilities, would attend more of the services if mosque spaces were more women-friendly. The simple steps to generate women-friendly mosques are as follows, a separate place for entrance/exit, for ablution and services for women. Also, maybe a separate section for women with babies and toddlers. Furthermore, there should be more social services provided in mosques for women, ideally provided by women. 

Many observant Muslims have told me that “central mosques” are more popular with women, but in those crowded mosques, men tend to take over the quarters reserved for women therefore leading to a de facto exclusion of women. In addition, Turkey’s share of Muslim tourists has increased considerably in recent years, which means visiting Muslim women want to join in the congregation as well, but even to find the “women’s quarters” is not an easy chore.

The most challenging question stands, “Will the next generation of women be more courageous to claim their space in mosques?” Only time will tell, but I believe, having suffered many obstacles throughout the years about their rights of entry and presence in several public spaces, it is high time for Muslim women in Turkey to find a comfortable embrace in mosques. If mosques cannot welcome women in a Muslim-majority country, how can we expect other places to be hospitable to us?