Muslim Women and Mosques

Post Date: September 24th, 2014


I’ve been thinking about Muslim women and mosques. I spent a week in Istanbul, Turkey, with my husband. In this majority Muslim city I saw many women in Muslim outerwear.

The most common was the hijab –a headscarf completely covering the hair. These were often very colorful and attractively worn. A hijab might be worn with a fashionable long-sleeve blouse and either a long skirt or pants. It was also worn with a jilbab – a high-necked, loose robe that covered their arms and legs. While these were often black and looked a bit like a cleric’s robe, there were also beautifully colored ones. Older women wore a jilbab that looked like a long trench coat or raincoat.

I did not see anyone in a burka, although I did see a few women wearing not only a black jilbab but also a black niqab – a cloth which covers the face except for the eyes. Some faces were so tightly covered by the niqab that I wondered how the women managed to blink. One woman so dressed wore sunglasses and was thereby completely covered in black and unidentifiable.

One elder woman had a bright, multi-colored, checkered skirt under her jilbab which peeked out when she lifted the jilbab to walk more surely with her cane. Younger women could be seen with Jimmy Choo shoes under their jilbabs, hinting at the fashion underneath the outerwear.

The middle-aged men tended to wear slacks and long-sleeved business shirts; the younger men less so. Thus we encountered on the funicular as well as the Bosphorus cruise the startling sight of a young woman in jilbab and niqab sitting beside a young man in jeans and a shirt with sleeves partially rolled up. The disparity between the couple’s attire was jarring.

Generally I respected the women’s and middle-aged men’s choices in following their religious mandates for modesty. It was dicier with the niqab since it seemed less defensible as a modesty measure.

But least defensible to my Western eyes were the mosques with their separated sections for men and women. It wasn’t the separation per se that was bothersome; it was the stark inequality of the areas. The men’s spaces were central and capacious with varying types of elaborate lighting such as very large chandeliers. The women’s spaces were far in the back or to the side in the back, sans lighting. The women’s section of the famous Blue Mosque looked like a pen. It wounded me to see it.

I recognize that what is done to women in the name of religion is not limited to Islam. Nor is it limited to certain cultures. We and Britain, for example, have our own issues with women’s full equality. Perhaps a lesson here is that we live with these attitudes in part because the inequality is less apparent than in a mosque or on the funicular in Istanbul.