Believe together, pray separately?

Believe together, pray separately?

Turkey's conservative Islamic president, of all people, is currently campaigning for women's rights in the mosque. He wants them to pray together with men and wants to see them more often at Friday prayers.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not exactly known as a champion of feminism. Recently, however, the head of state clashed with conservative clerics. His demand: more women and children should come to pray in mosques.

Against separate prayer areas

At the beginning of October, the Turkish president pointed out that there is no passage in the Koran that forbids the praying of the sexes together. Erdogan also addressed the ie at the opening of the Ditib mosque in Cologne last September: "You tell women: You can't come to Friday prayers or holiday prayers. They discourage women from coming to the mosques. But why should they not come? If we want strong mosques, we need to include women as well." For progressive Muslims, Erdogan has thus spoken out against separate prayer areas, even if he does not clearly say so.

The topic occupies Turkish Muslims already for a long time. In March, a riot broke out at Istanbul's Fatih Mosque when four women refused to leave the men's prayer area.

They received support from the initiative "Kadinlar Camilerde," which translates as "Women in Mosques". The organization has been around since 2017. The association of Muslim women is campaigning for cleaner and, above all, common prayer areas in Turkish mosques.

According to Turkish law, every mosque should have two entrances, one for women and one for men. But in practice there are often problems. The segregated spaces for women are much smaller.

Male macho behavior

Steep stairs often make climbing difficult for older women and children. Washrooms – necessary for ritual ablutions before prayer – are often out of order or dirty. The much larger rooms for men, on the other hand, are usually clean and laid out with comfortable carpets. This creates a negative spiral: fewer women go to the mosque, which is why many imams neglect the maintenance of the rooms for women. The problem particularly affects mosques in smaller towns and in the countryside.

"Kadinlar Camilerde" therefore calls for men and women to pray together in the same rooms. The NGO uses social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, but also asks the Diyanet for support. The religious authority repeatedly launched campaigns urging women to go to the mosque for Friday prayers.

According to the Diyanet, the separation has nothing to do with Islamic rules, but it does have to do with macho male behavior. That sounds quite progressive; after all, the spatial separation of men and women in mosques has been common since the earliest days of Islam. On the other hand, it is rather unusual for women to participate in Friday prayers.

Conservatives criticize

But the proposals have met with resistance from many religious orders and conservative imams. There, the traditional image of the family is seen as being in danger and there is even a fear that men could be tempted by the provocative movements of women during prayer. "When women pray in crowded mosques with men, they also disturb the men's prayer," wrote the ultra-conservative columnist Vehbi Kara in early November in "Yeni Akit," a religious daily newspaper. That was especially true in cities like Istanbul, where space was limited, he said.

Among many conservative Turkish women, Erdogan is actually seen as a promoter of women. Many devout Turkish women consider the opening of many areas of public life to women wearing headscarves to be one of the most important achievements of the AKP government. Under secular governments, women were banned from wearing headscarves in public spaces for decades.

Erdogan's view of women, however, has little to do with Western ideas of emancipation. Apparently, his main concern is to anchor Islam as broadly as possible in society, half of which is made up of women. A demand by Erdogan elsewhere fits in with this: he called on Turkish women to stay at home and have at least three children.

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