Islamic Women in Turkey
The modern Turkey has a long and rich Islamic culture, it has a large number of historical mosques in different cities and towns of the country. Islam remains the main and popular religion being practiced in Turkey with about 99.8% of its population subscribing to the Muslim faith.
Secularization of Turkey started in the Ottoman Empire under reform program known as Atarturks reforms. Under the reforms Islam that was being used as a symbol of the world leadership for all Muslims was done away with. Secular power held by religious authorities was minimized and was finally eroded. Religious institutions were nationalized and teaching religion was for some time abolished.
Even though Turkey was secularized officially and only at the official level, religion was influence was dominant at the popular levels (Afkihami 27). Political leaders pushing for secularization later tried to appeal to those whose inclination was on religion by giving support to programs that were religious. The lack of appreciation of religious values among the proponents of secularization policy met some resistance and culminated to polarization in the society.
A new generation of elites and very educated people who had religious inclination came to challenge the secularized political elite. Through their political activism, piety and prayer they helped to revive observation of Islamic ideas in Turkey. The new generation of religiously inclined leaders have been generally successful in adoption of Islamic religious heritage in the various government policies.
In Turkey, one can be a Muslim by birth and therefore consider himself a Muslim even if one does not practice any religious customs or beliefs. On the other hand, there are those who connect to Muslim faith by virtue of accepting Islamic theology and practicing Turkish Culture (Gregorian 27). Therefore, in Turkey, there exists the cultural Muslims and religious Muslims.
Turkey’s constitution provides for religious freedom and the government recognizes this in right and practice. The government however by virtue of preserving a secular state imposes restrictions on Muslim religion and other existing religious groups. These restrictions are made on state run institutions like universities and government institutions.
Secularity means providing protection of believes, freedom to worship and disseminating of religious beliefs and has a vital role in protecting the state. Private religious schools are not allowed to be established except for the state controlled school Imam Hatip Liles which teaches religion based on modern positive science (Gregorian 31).
Turkey in the Islamic world has been more receptive to theological revolution and agitation for change. Turkey among the Islamic nations has led in position in dealing with issues pertaining to women in the Islamic world. Turkish women like every person in the society have been caught up in their own individual aspirations, desires, goals and expectations, and objective situations they find themselves subjected to. The objective situations are set by the virtue of their religion, social order and economic changes.
Despite the objective situations, women in Turkey have played a vital role in agitation for change in the Islamic religious circles. Muslim women in Turkey have brought significant changes in Turkey’s Muslim order through several measures that they have taken in trying to appear both professional and religious, and also to be modern and modest in their day to day lives. The government of Turkey has played a great role in facilitating women to implement the necessary changes in the society.
Women have been pointed out for the first time in Turkey to lead groups of Turks pilgrimage to Mecca which is not a common phenomenon in most Islamic practicing countries like the Middle East. To assist women to participate more in religious activities and exercise their leadership powers, the Turkish government has developed different institutions for women. For example, a body called Diyanet which overseas the country’s mosques and trains religious leaders across the country. Diyanet selects women whose role is to serve as deputies to muftis and to expound religious laws. The women also act as watchdogs to imams in local mosques and oversee matters that particularly relate to Muslim women in all spheres of life in a Muslim woman comes in contact with in Turkey.
All these changes in women role in the society experienced in Turkey are attributed to the rise of a new class of educated religious women. These educated women are demanding for better religious education and academics.
The women are also demanding for new answers to some traditions that are not Islam which have led to oppression of women and inequalities experienced in women’s life in the country (Aitchison 213). The women religious activists are now participating and mingling with men more often, therefore they need change to facilitate better, proper, and acceptable interaction.
Religious education in Turkey has liberated women from traditional homes and has given them some kind of independence unlike in some Muslim countries like the Middle East. Morghadam says that it is very paradoxical, but by choosing Islam, they can gain their individuality and emancipation. In this context Islam means modernization (21). Female students in Turkish universities studying theology are on the rise and they make the majority in the departments of theology which has not been a common thing in the past.
Though with some changes being experienced in Turkey, Muslim orthodoxy is still adamant and holds that women cannot lead prayers particularly in the Arab Muslim heart land (Jerkin 23). The interpretation of Islamic scriptures and law from the Quran and other religious articles has been male dominated and women have been highly marginalized in participating in Islamic interpretations of law and scripture.
There have been claims that Sharia law in Islamic religion or various interpretations are against women rights while some have negated this saying that the scriptures encourages equality among men and women. The two opposing sides have had valid reasons to support their claims and in setting their positions by use of different Quranic readings and interpretations.
The general principles holds that women and men or both sexes are that; all creatures of Allah exist and are on one level and of equal worth. The equality of both sexes has been laid down in the different passages of the Quran concerning four aspects of man and women interaction and existence. The aspects are religious matters,ethical obligation and rewards, education and legal rights.
In the religious matters an example of creation is given. Quran shows that God created man and woman and should only complement each other. The idea of suppressing women however in not supported in some of the Quran interpretations. In fact, Quran according to some writers interpretation, the holy book favors women so much that it refers man and woman as Zauj meaning counterparts or companions to each other. The Quran goes on to say that a woman and a man complements each other and they come from each other thus no one exits on their own.
The popular myth that Adam sinned in paradise due to a woman cunning behavior has been negated by the holy book Quran. The book states that both man and woman can go wrong in their deeds. Thus women should not be blamed for sins and suffering on the earth. After sinning in the Garden of Eden God deals with them with equity by being punished and thrown out of the garden and also equally gave them forgiveness when they asked for it.
On religious obligations and rewards, women and men equally are supposed to surrender to Allah. Both sexes have an obligation to obey Allah’s commandments by speaking the truth, giving alms to the poor, and humbling themselves and both are entitled to the same rewards.
Quran also mentions equality in access to education. It says that men and women should pursue education and knowledge. The book commands that all people should read, meditate and recite scriptures. Prophet Muhammad in Quran says that restrictions should never be imposed on one sex in the process of acquisition of knowledge of the scriptures. The Prophet also suggests that even if one is required to travel then he or she should for the sake of knowledge. He further demonstrates this by commanding slave girls to be educated. Women attended lectures during the prophet Muhammad time and by the time of His death, many women were scholars.
Quran also talks so much on equality between men and women in matters relating to legal rights. Unlike in the west whereby married women are not allowed to own property, the Quran stipulates that women can buy or sell, have a right to enter into contract, and managing property. Women are also entitled to inheritance according to the Quran, they can share in a families inheritance and warns individuals from depriving a womans inheritance. It is further specified that dower of a womans marriage should be hers alone and not her husbands unless a woman decides to give it as a free gift to her husband.
( Holy Quran Sura 5: 116 – 119) And behold God will say: “O Jesus the son of Mary! Dist though say unto men, worship me and may mother as gods in derogation of God?” He will say “Glory to thee! never could I say what I had no right to say. ( Holy Quran 3:42) says that O Mary God has chosen you and purified you above women of all nations.
‘Son of Mary’ in the above mentioned verses has been used repeatedly all through the Quran in reference to Jesus. The phrase is used as honorific title when referring to Jesus. Women have used this as their base for argument that God honors women and uses them for his purpose equally with their male counterparts.
Some other interpretations in the Quran have brought about controversy as men would use them as a way of undermining women ability. The Prophet said, “Isn’t the witness of a woman equal of that of a man?” The prophet answers that it is because of the deficiency of a womans mind (Bauman 826).
Prophet Muhammad according to his statement holds a belief that women are lesser and deficient in mind therefore have little say as witnesses. Many interpretation like to hide or conceal this thought regarding to prophet Muhammad, and only restricts the thought of women being lesser witnesses to financial issues which they claim women are not experts.
Women cannot hold high senior positions in Islam (Holy Qu’ran 4:34). Men are expected to be protectors and maintain women. The statement means that men should provide for women, rule and govern them. Men are more superior and better than women, and that being prophet was only endowed to male as the prophet says that no people will ever prosper who appoint a woman in charge of them (Afshar 492)
Major steps of Quran interpretation and support for women have been taken over by women scholars both in the western and Muslim world. Amina Wudud was the first African-American woman to publish works asserting male and female equity. Her interpretations were highly based on Quran and challenged that interpretations which purports violence, deny human rights, dignity and equality violates Qur’anic principles (Quad 14)
Muslim women in Turkey have had a challenging experience in striking a balance between their professional and religious life. According to the sociological point of view behavior is guided by our cultural orientations and social relations. The social part can be an object to differing, conflicting and competing social groups (Moghadam 89)
Religion among Turkish women gives them objective probabilities. Religion is one of the effective source of laws rules and expectations governing everyone in the Muslim societies. Religion is felt in day to day life, in dress code, gender roles and responsibilities, social relationships, speech and other important social aspects. The economic needs have also forced women to seek for work outside their homes even when they feel they should not.
Islamic framework belief in acting the proper way, women are therefore subjected to this belief in performance of their Islamic belief and going about their social relations. Women are at cross roads with these expectations in their work and and executing their domestic chores. These women are expected to maintain a balance and are expected to fail neither
Employment or work is generally allowed among the Islamic women and women are highly recommended to seek employment if they find it necessary but are subject to religious restrictions. Search for employment is supported by Quranic scriptures by giving illustrations of female shepherds.
The first restriction is that, women are not supposed to violate Islamic law for example serving alcohol. Women are very much prohibited to work in certain places such as or pubs or restaurants serving alcoholic drinks.
Secondly a woman in the Islamic society is expected to play her family role and any work which can affect their role towards their family should not be encouraged. Finally women whose jobs require them to leave their homes are expected to maintain their modesty in their places of work.
Employment for women in Islamic laws varies from one field to another. For example women are allowed to seek medical intervention from men but it is preferred that they seek from female physicians. On the other hand, female institutions such as schools, colleges sport centers among others should have female staff. However there have been disagreements whether women can hold judicial positions. Shafi’tes hold that women must not hold any office while Hanafites accept women to act as judges only in civil cases and not in criminal cases ( Holy Qur’an 4:34)
Women who are professionals, married and have families try to legitimize their daily activities. In contemporary Turkey, women have performed very well in different professions like those in the Western countries. They are physicians, engineers and professors in universities.
Most women in Turkey start working before they are married and once they get their first babies they have to take time away from their work place. They have to create time to nurse their babies which is a divine duty of a woman and return to work afterwards.
Muslim women perceive working as a way of spreading their religion Islam (Xavier 251). Being a teacher for example one can spread the word to more people in the classrooms. These women try to justify or legitimize their activities as a way of serving God and the society at large.
Work for men in the Muslim society is considered a normal and natural phenomenon. Women on the other hand are expected to work only at home and working outside is deemed not of their responsibility. Women especially the veiled women who are working when interviewed always try to justify that they are only working for the sake of religion.
The working Muslim woman is also expected to draw boundaries in their working conditions. The patriarchal belief draws and outlines how a man and woman should relate in the public. This belief hinders women from mingling freely with men lest they break the law.
Women whose professions are male dominated such as engineers , or doctors have a different perceptions on men. They do not view men as threats to their modesty, they strongly hold that their personalities and purity exhibit their modest behaviors.
Even if women according to law should be educated and have a right to work, there is still inequality in job opportunities. Some countries do not allow for women to work in the private sector because are expected to perform their role first in their family. Other women like in Turkey contemporary society can be freely absorbed by both the private and the public sectors.
The participation of women in economic life of Turkey has been be increasing tremendously though some especially in the rural areas are still affected to a greater extent by gender inequalities. Women experience gender discrimination when it comes to employment opportunities. Since women have traditional gender roles to play at home most of the times are not included in the income generating activities. They are also restricted to work in particular places and certain jobs are stipulated not for women. The restrictions decrease their mobility in search of jobs thus decrease employment opportunities.
Although women have may have the same level of education, qualifications, and experience, they are paid less salaries or wages and promotion opportunities are quite minimal. Although women represent 50% of the world population and work two-thirds of of the working hours share 10%of their wealth with the world and own less than 1% of the world wealth and property (Craven 342).
The number of women who live in poverty has superseded that of men in Turkey and most developing countries (Samovar 12). Poverty has been identified to be as a result of economic changes, social changes, and transformation especially in the developing countries that have economic transition. Poverty always affect the household at large, but since women are responsible for house hold welfare they are overburdened with management of production and consumption.
Education of women is another factor which measures the economic status of women. In Turkey, improving of educational facilities and provision of equal and accessible educational opportunities has been one of its target. However, this has not been fully achieved since most children who do not access education are often girls.
Gender roles and inequalities in society also leads to women loss of control of resources. This often has affected their health and health is usually a factor used to measure the economic development of a country. Poor health has been associated with low productivity hence low economic development.
Regional differences in Turkey affect the economic status of women. Despite expansion of women programs, women who live in the rural areas are further affected by gender inequalities and poor health status. The inequalities have adverse effect on the economic position of a woman as they affect their access to education, health care and other key factors in economic development.
Professional women in Turkey have also used the modern global ideas and capitalistic way to fight of human rights, democracy and liberation. These women are participating more in capitalistic society and using their Islamic discourse to legitimize their actions.
Educated women have formed groups to advocate and lobby through what has come to be known as Islamic feminism. Islamic feminism is concerned with gender equality, women rights issues and social justice within the Islamic context. Its major aim is to seek equality of Muslim faithfuls whether male or female both in the public and private lives. Though the movement is rooted in Islam, its proponents have also used secular and non-Muslim ideologies as part of lobbying for Islamic feminism.
There is so much optimism in Turkey that is associated with the developments being witnessed in the contemporary society particularly Quranic exegesis. Some of theoretical developments that have been made include; response to traditional patriarchy, response to modernity, globalization and modernity, and response to the surge of Islamism.
Educated, modernized, upper and middle class women view Islamic religion as oppressive, and patriarchal institution. Some have adopted secular or anti-religious attitudes, many others in the rural villages and some in the urban centers have not departed from their religious identity and beliefs and have endeavored to resist patriarchy within their religious context.
These Islamic feminists claim that if religious scriptures were interpreted correctly and well understood then the issue of subordination of women would not arise. Spiritual scriptures and societal norms are warring and therefore, they need to brought together to be at tandem. Activists maintain that egalitarian reforms are inevitable and note that before the religions were closely associated with state powers, sharing of power between men and women in the early times was practiced.
In response to modernization, and modernity influenced by greater urbanization, education, employment, and literacy in the society, Muslim women have sought to reformation or reconstruction of ancient ideas. They have sought to address issues concerning the family structure and gender roles.
Islamic feminism is therefore seeking to negotiate modernity and presenting this modernity differently from the Western modernization which emerged first. These women activist try to legitimize their feminist demands by making them native to avoid being brushed off as western borrowed ideals.
Ahmed argues that reforms pursued in native and not in terms of appropriation of other cultures would be more persuasive and intelligible to uneducated and traditional class of people in the society (162). The reforms would thus have a permanent impact and would be more durable than those which are foreign and do not relate to the society.
Another trend contributing to modernization is the international migration. Migration in the former societies was a male phenomenon, currently women also travel a lot and may either migrate temporarily or permanently in other countries.
These exposed women come in touch with feminism discourses such as human rights, gender equality and democracy. The exposure affects their expectations and consciousness either directly or indirectly to women in Turkey. Also associated with change in expectations is widespread knowledge through media such as televisions, literature, radios and satellite facilities.
Due to the upsurge of the Muslim retrogressive gender project, Muslim women have felt an urge to reform and improve women roles and rights within their Islamic frame work. Women want to reconcile their new acquired empowered status, gender roles, socio-political status and families with their religion.
Muslim feminists find gender reformation in Islam as a necessary ingredient for the development of a broader society, democracy and women rights. Women therefore need to be equipped with education and knowledge of Quran, feminists ideals and theories to be able to effect changes in the Islamic authorities, and in the process of agitating for their rights.
In conclusion of the above discussion, Islamic feminists and professional women in Turkey have a great challenge in asserting their positions in the male dominated society. These women continue to fight with the social positions also known as subject positions and their religion. They have a roller costar of emotions in dealing with the overlapping and conflicting roles like being a dedicated Islamic believer, a professional and modest woman, a desirable wife and a good mother.
The spread of modernity and globalization has pushed the Islamic women to try and reconcile their different roles and positions within their day to day life. They have tried to legitimize their stand points and rationalize their deeds basing their acts and arguments on the Islamic religious discourse in this process.
Being professional and remaining modest and religious has been a challenge to many but at least some ways have sort to address the problem though not fully solved. Islamic feminism still remains relevant and not oxymoron given the fact that the society cannot resist change being experienced in the entire globe.
The global spreading of modern way of living, ideals such as democracy, human rights, leadership, liberation emancipation are irresistible. Economic changes are also pushing women to participate in building the country’s economy as they are also great stakeholders of the economy. Women in Turkey, and all societies regardless of religion, gender and ethnicity are affected by the global changes and are forced to change so as to adapt to a fast moving world.
Abu-Lughod, Lila, (ed.). Remaking women, feminism, and modernity in the middle East, New Jersey: Princeton University, 2002.
Afkhami, Mahnaz, (ed.). Faith and freedom, women’s human rights in the Muslim world. New York: Syracuse University, 2001.
Afshar, Haleh, (ed.). Women, state and ideology studies from Africa and Asia. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002
Ahmed, Leila . Women and gender. New haven: Yale University Press. 2002.
Aitchison, Cara. Hopkins, Peter. H., Geographies of Muslim Identities: Diaspora, Gender and Belonging. Liverpool: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. 2007
Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernity and Ambivalence. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2001.
Craven, Martha. The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2007
Gregorian, Vartan. Islam: A Mosaic, not a Monolith. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press. 2003.
Humayun, Ansari. The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain Since 1800. Instanbul: C. Hurst ; Co. Publishers, 2004
Jenkins, Hester. Behind Turkish Lattices: The Story of a Turkish Woman’s Life. Detroit: Gorgias Press LLC. 2005
Kaufman, James. Sternberg, Robert. The International Handbook of Creativity. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 2006
Moghadam, Valentine. Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East. Instabul: Lynne Rienner Publishers 2003.
Mondal, Rahim. Rural Muslim Women: Role and Status. Philadelphia. Northern Book Centre, 2005
Quad, Joseph. Najmabadi, Afsaned. Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures: Methodologies, Paradigms and Sources. London: Blackwell Publishers.
Samovar, Larry Porter, Richard. Intercultural Communication: A Reader. London: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005
Xavier, Inda. Renato ,Rosaldo. The Anthropology of Globalization: A Reader. London: Blackwell Publishing, 2008
Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur’an in the English Language. Trans. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali. Riyadh: Dar-es Salaam. 2001.