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Germany

Female Imams Reach Out Into German Communities

Religious leaders in mosques are for the large part men. In Germany, just over a dozen female imams work in their communities. Yet more women are urgently needed in the mosques for counseling and integration aid.

An imam reads a prayer

Leading Friday prayers continues to be the domain of men

They lead prayers, give Koran lessons and offer counseling. Whether it's New York, Berlin, Cairo or Istanbul: female imams are currently high in demand.

Zeynep Cesen is one of the very few female imams who came to Germany from Turkey to specifically help women in Muslim communities. Even when Friday prayers continue to be the domain of her male counterparts, Cesen's range of responsibilities is very diverse, but she mainly helps women with their problems.

"It's generally young women who came here from Turkey," Cesen said. "We listen to their problems and try to find solutions."

Due to her close contact to women of all ages, Cesen reaches circles which a male imam in Germany never could. This is one of the reasons why the Turkish-Islamic Union DITIB employs female imams, said speaker Ayse Aydin.

"Religious services and human needs can't always be separated," Aydin said. DITIB's goal is serving the needs of the community. This included consciously addressing women, answering their questions and giving them the possibility to feel secure in the community, she said.

Supporting integration efforts

When Cesen came to Germany at the beginning of the 1990s, her position was initially limited to six years. Today, she counsels up to 100 women per day.

A German and a Turkish flag waving over a mosque

Integrating Turks into German society still faces many problems

In addition to her counseling tasks, she has developed her own form of preaching. She said she answers religious questions "not down from the pulpit" but rather in discussion rounds with different women's groups. And daily problems are not excluded.

Women of all ages and with various social and personal problems turn to her. Many women would not open up to a male imam.

"There are many things that women only want to share with women," Cesen said, adding that a warm and friendly atmosphere was necessary in order to share certain problems and issues.

Cesen said she reaches many Turkish families through her intensive counseling work with women. She said she wants to show them possibilities to access German society. She said integration problems of mainly young Turks in schools and training facilities require urgent action, Cesen said.

Cesen said she urged both Turkish businesses as well as German companies to create more training opportunities for young people. In addition, much more needed to be done for women of Turkish descent in order for their integration to succeed.

Dialog with Christians

When Cesen speaks, many people in her community are all ears -- even non-Muslims.

"She is often consulted from outside, too," said DITIB speaker Aydin. "We are proud of the work which our imam does here."

Three young Muslim girls praying

Women and girls of all ages seek Cesen's advice

Cesen said she sees her contribution in an interchange with the neighborhood.

"We need one another in good times as well as in bad times," she said. "So we need a good dialog with our German friends."

Cesen said she therefore needed to be a good role model and encourage her community to do the same. This included, for example, that Muslims and Christians wish each other happy holidays, no matter if it's Christmas or Ramadan. Or that you go visit neighbors who are ill.

The 50-year-old Cesen is one of only 13 female imams currently working in Turkish mosques in Germany. This is in part due to the lack of theological training for imams in Germany. The Turkish-Islamic Union would like to have theologians trained in Germany and foremost, ones who speak German well.

Cesen studied at the Faculty for Islamic Theology in Izmir and worked as an imam in Turkey for 18 years before coming to Germany in 1994. Here, she initially served 51 mosque communities in Cologne and the surrounding areas. Today, she works solely for DITIB.

Diyanet, the state authority for religious affairs in Turkey, helps select female theologians for the DITIB communities. Since 2002, there has been a more intensive preparation for female and male imams who are to be employed in Germany. They are prepared for their new tasks with German courses and cultural studies at the Goethe Institute in Ankara. After all, they are supposed to help their fellow countrymen and women to better integrate themselves in Germany.

Whether the Union can raise the current number of female imams for Germany is unclear. Many Turkish mosques in Germany would like to have a woman in their ranks. It would be a measure which would unburden Cesen and her female colleagues.

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