- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2006

KONYA, Turkey — Dressed in the head scarf and ankle-length coat that mark her as a devout Muslim woman, Sule Yuksel Uysal brushes off any suggestion that she is a revolutionary. But her job places her and her country on the front lines of Islamic reform.

Appointed 18 months ago by Turkey’s directorate of religious affairs, or Diyanet, Mrs. Uysal is one of 200 state-paid “vaizes,” or female preachers, whose very existence breaks with centuries of Muslim tradition.

Women acted informally as preachers in the early days of Islam, but they never before have been recognized officially as such.

“Turkey is a country that has accepted the idea of sexual equality, and that must be reflected in religious practice,” said Diyanet head Ali Bardakoglu, who implemented the changes. “Anyway, the Koran has taught the equality of men and women for 1,400 years.”

His words belie the depth of animosity in the Muslim world toward women’s religious authority. When American theologian Amina Wadud led Friday prayers in New York last year, Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, Sheik Abdul Aziz-Seikh, described her as “an enemy of Islam” who had “violated God’s law.”

Unlike Mrs. Wadud, the Turkish vaizes make no claims to be religious leaders. For Mrs. Uysal, their fundamental role is to provide women with a woman’s perspective on Islam.

“Turkish mosques remain male-dominated places, and most women only hear what imams say via their husbands or fathers,” she said. “We give them an opportunity to go to mosques and ask questions they otherwise wouldn’t dare to.”

That may not sound like much, but the vaizes’ sermons often touch on contentious issues such as honor killings and women’s rights under Islam.

Not all men are happy with their wives’ newfound learning.

“One of the first sermons I heard was about women’s marital rights,” said Meryem Uzun, from the southeastern city of Mardin. “When I told my husband what I had heard, he got angry and tried to prevent me going to the mosque again.”

For Esra Ozdemir, a preacher in another southeastern town, Sirnak, the interest of local women in her teachings offers stark evidence of the need to increase the number of vaizes.

“They see me almost as a savior,” she told the Islamic weekly Aktuel late last year. “I don’t think anybody had listened to their problems before.”

Despite the problems, Turkish women in the past few years have benefited from a raft of changes aimed at legitimizing their place in the religious order.

As well as being preachers, women now have the right to lead groups on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, and 15 Turkish provinces have women serving as deputy muftis — specialists on religious law who monitor the work of imams in mosques.

Significantly, given that 70 percent of requests for advice come from women, the assistant muftis have the right to issue fatwas, or religious opinions.

Theologian Hidayet Tuksal thinks these are crucial changes.

“Religion is the best way to reach religious women, much better than dictates handed down by secularist feminists in Istanbul,” she said.

Perhaps the best-known of a growing band of what the Turkish press calls Islamic feminists, Mrs. Tuksal attributes the changes to the rise of a new sort of Turkish woman who is feisty and not afraid to question tradition.

“When I began teaching in the 1980s, I had to justify my demand for a salary,” she said. “Today, those attitudes are unthinkable.”

But like her colleagues at the Ankara-based foundation that she set up to combat attempts to justify sexual inequality on religious grounds, Mrs. Tuksal still thinks much is left to be done. Of the 80,000 employees of the Diyanet, she said, fewer than 3,000 are women.

More importantly, many Turks still subscribe to explicitly sexist interpretations of the traditions of the prophet Muhammad, such as the belief that a woman needs a man’s consent to go to heaven.

“Good intentions are not enough,” Mrs. Tuksal said. “Such traditions have to be tackled forcibly.”

Though he acknowledges the length of the road still to be traveled, the Diyanet’s Mr. Bardakoglu said the speed of reform has limits.

“The Diyanet aims to lead believers,” he said. “It can’t do that if it’s running so fast it disappears from sight.”

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