Secular Republic, Muslim World: Participating in Turkish Ramadan

Tons of Muslims gathering for activities, Sultanahmet in the background.

Submitted by Rachel Whitcomb, Global Ambassador in Istanbul, Turkey

A long skirt and covered shoulders gets you through most neighborhood and sights safely.

One of the most interesting parts about Istanbul and Turkey in general is that although it’s a secular state, and has been for decades, the population is 98% Islamic and at this time of year, Ramadan, it certainly shows. This unique combination leads to a variety of clothing styles- modest coverings ranging from burqa (fully veiled except for the eyes), hijab (only the face is showing), and just covering all of the arms and legs, to the modern European/Western style dressing. There are certain parts of the city that you need to be aware of what you are wearing, but most of the time it’s not something we worry about.

I’ve been in solidarity with the half of the Muslim population here in Istanbul that has been fasting for Ramadan- that’s no food or water from morning prayer at 3:55 a.m. until the sun sets at 8:40 p.m. (yes, that many hours without food or water). It’s been a challenging and humbling experience, especially to be a part of it around so many other people! By day, the city and areas around my campus are pretty barren, but after the sun sets people come from all over and hang out and celebrate. It’s a beautiful sight to see!

This pride parade is known for its huge flag that takes up the whole street!

Down at the Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet, the biggest mosque in Istanbul, people set up picnics, there are performances, and free food tents where people donate food for the poor (the food that they would have eaten that day). The mosque itself is very busy too.

While in these times it looks like there’s a lot of people fasting (and thus are conservative Muslms) this city is surprisingly liberal and progressive. For example, a few weeks ago we went to Istanbul Gay Pride Parade with a huge attendance and overwhelming support from the city! It’s in the top 5 most populated gay pride parades in Europe. After everyone breaks fast and during Pride were the two busiest times I’ve seen the city.

Living in a city where the laws are secular but the people are very religious has shaped a really beautiful and interesting experience for me. It’s amazing to see how things I would have preserved as in conflict living together peacefully in the same big city.


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