Reforming the Country via Mosque Sermons

Abuse of women remains a major stumbling block to Turkish EU membership aspirations. But along with new legislation, the government has heeded criticisms from many women's groups that laws are not enough. By Dorian Jones

The faithful are being called to Friday prayers in the Uskudar district of Istanbul. Along with prayers, the Imam delivers the weekly sermon. But today they are hearing a rather different message.

The Friday sermon traditionally talks of how to be a devout Muslim. But the Imam today is lecturing on women's rights. He condemns domestic violence and calls for girls to be sent to school, as well as preaching equality for women. The same sermon is being heard in all of the country's mosques. It has been issued by the government's religious affairs directorate or Diyanet.

A revolutionary new policy

The state authority controls and administers the country's Muslim faith. Its head in Istanbul is Mufti Professor Mustafa Yagci – he says the sermons are part of a revolutionary new policy.

"Women have always been treated as second-class citizens, not only in the eastern world but also the west," says Yagci. "But there are different levels of abuse in different cultures. The exploitation of women as sexual objects, as well as honor killings and domestic abuse must be fought against. In our religious writings it is very clear you should not kill or abuse women. These new sermons are part of an important change in our organization, we now recognize the rights of women, is now a priority for us."

The sermon initiative is timely, being launched just before the human rights group Amnesty International published a damming report on women's rights in Turkey.

Turkish women still victims of domestic violence

The report was released in a blaze of national and international publicity at a press conference in Istanbul. Along with documenting a catalogue of abuses including honor killings, it claims that up to 50% of Turkish women are victims of domestic violence.

But Christina Curry of Amnesty International says the new sermons are an indication of an important change that has occurred following the election of the Islamic-rooted government 18 months ago.

"There are a number of indicators that they (i.e. the government) are prepared to engage in reform, working in conjunction with women rights activists," Curry tells us. "In October last year, I am pleased to say, pretty much all the reforms proposed by the women's groups and Amnesty International have been accepted in the draft legislation currently before parliament. But I think a lot of work still needs to be done, it is a very serious problem, (and) implementation remains a concern. In Istanbul it seems quite good, (but) in a lot of places across the country it's still a serious problem."

NGOs approached by government officials

At a meeting of "The Flying Broom" women's rights group, discussions are underway on how to get the draft legislation passed in full and on how to get it properly implemented. The group has been in the forefront of pushing for reform.

But while in the past they have battled to get the ear of politicians, to their surprise they were approached by the state's religious directorate or Diyanet for help. The head of Flying Broom, Halime Goner, admits she was sceptical before the meeting.

"When I received the invitation by the new head of the Diyanet, I was shocked," Goner admits. "It was the first time in my 30 years of campaigning that I was approached by such a person. These sermons are very important because they are heard by 15 million men every week. And because much of the violence of women like honor killings are based on religious ideas, they can play a role in challenging these ideas. They even asked us to write the sermons but I declined saying we have no experience, but I gave them a list of things that should include and all appeared in the sermon."

But not everyone is so enthusiastic.

Using religion for implanting policies

Emre Akif is an editor and columnist for Islamic publications. He is concerned about the use of religion for social reform. While he doesn't oppose the aim of the sermons, Akif argues the mosques and his faith are being misused.

"They are trying to do social engineering in the Turkish society," Akif says. "If we look at modernization and modern society, we must give the people their own choice of lifestyles or beliefs etc., but if we use the Diyanet as imposing something on the people, especially in the name of religion, we cannot accept this."

With the Friday sermon finishing, there is a mixed response among the men to what they've heard.

"Beating women is not against the Koran"

"I have been married for 40 years and I beat my wife, this is not against the Koran," one man bluntly admits. "They should stick to religious issues. I don't come here to listen to lectures on how I should treat my wife."

"You cannot be violent to women," another man says. "I am against domestic violence, and opposing domestic violence is a good thing. Personally, when I hear these sermons I am happy, but I am not sure everyone listens."

Women are also divided, but mostly on whether the sermons will do any good. "It is one of the ways to stop violence and they should try by all means," says one woman. "You can't use violence against women; it is not even in our religion, it has just been misinterpreted. Education is the best way to stop this, but having these sermons will also help. I definitely approve."

Another woman is more pessimistic. "Change should come from inside the man, but after hearing the sermon, they will all go home and be the same. And I am sure many of these Imams don't believe what they are saying. It will not make much of a difference."

Halime Goner of the Flying Broom says from her own experience such concerns are well founded. But she argues they are already working with the Diyanet to address the problem.

Monitoring Imam's sermons with the Diyanet

"I was in Bingol, a city in the rural southeast of Turkey," Goner says. "We are running a campaign there to get girls to attend school. In the city over 70% don't attend. We were told by teachers it is the Imams who are telling the men not to send them, saying they will be corrupted. So we are now setting up monitoring of Imams, and where this occurs we will work with the Diyanet to get them replaced. Sermons are just the beginning. I am looking to the future where mosques will be a real center for women's rights, where one day they will offer refuge for them as well as advocating their rights."

The controversy over whether the country's mosques should be a platform for advocating women's rights seems set to continue. Some critics continue to oppose the government's tactics, arguing social reform and religion shouldn't be mixed.

But for others the most important issue is whether the governments will be successful in helping to give women their full rights.

Dorian Jones