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Islam, Gender and Democracy in Turkey

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in collaboration with his NYU-AD seminar

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Secular republicans saw, and some still see, the woman's headscarf -- interpreted by pious Muslims as a religious obligation -- as the wedge by which Islamic law will enter the Turkish republic. One practice, its secular critics worry, will lead to another. Mustafa Akyol, a young modernist Muslim thinker, disagrees. "The headscarf is expected from Muslims," he tells my students who have come here from New York University-Abu Dhabi, "but it is up to rational choice, like fasting for Ramadan. Forcing someone to wear it would be a sin. Sins should not be punished as if they were crimes." But that does not calm secular Turks. Providing public warrant for women who want to avoid an Islamic sin, they fear, is ultimately going to open the door to punishing Islamic crimes -- like apostasy or adultery.

Based on my students' interviews with ordinary Istanbulians, there are Muslim voters out there who hope it will work out just this way. A man who works in the military, whose headscarfed mother was denied entry to his military ceremonies, is asked why Turks are so afraid of a bit of cloth. They are scared, he replies, because, "they think shariah [Islamic law] will come." He says nothing to disabuse them of that notion. "A shariah regime is the law of God and those who are scared of law of God, can they be Muslims?"

Does he support such a regime? "
If I steal your recorder," he replies, "I'll spend a month in jail and then I am free. But if we have a shariah regime, they will cut my hand. Do you think if they cut my hand I can do it again? ... Women are getting raped. In current law, if you rape a woman you spend three or six months or a year in jail and then you are free. If we cut off the head of rapist, do you think another person will dare to do it? Think of yourself, what will you do if your sister gets raped? Would you want that man to get killed or not? Ninety percent of Turkey seems to be Muslim, but they are not.... If we would have shariah, everything will be nice."

That is not what the AK party, the governing Islamic party in Turkey, stands for. (Nor do Turks want it. Less than 10 percent support the adoption of shariah.) This past September Prime Minister Erdogan, greeted in Cairo by tumultuous crowds who had just pulled off the Arab Spring, angered the Muslim Brotherhood by calling on Egyptians to create a secular constitution. This is the winning AK party script. While previous Muslim parties in Turkey sought to create an Islamic state, the AK party -- which evolved out of those suppressed political parties -- abandoned the program of instituting Islamic law and pushed for entry into the European Union as a liberal, secular state. A rising Muslim bourgeoisie from the Anatolian heartland was solidly behind this possibility.

Based on their desire to enter the EU, their fear of military repression, and as a way to win the most votes, Erdogan's AK party rode to power by running against the headscarf ban on the one side, and as an efficient, non-corrupt, service-oriented, pro-market government on the other. The party did not make a religious case against the headscarf ban. Its reasoning remained resolutely secular: against illiberal discrimination and the denial of free exercise of religion, both reasons Americans will grasp easily. In 2008, the parliament finally voted to lift the ban, a decision overturned by the constitutional court and vehemently opposed by many of the country's universities.

The AK Party used the EU admissions process to push for political liberalization -- for rights of association, of political speech, of the rule of law -- all of which they understood would protect them against the generals.

And it did. The AK Party not only flourished; it brought an elemental democracy to the Turks. Although the question of Kurdish rights and the repression of journalistic freedom muddies the picture, democracy means that voters, not generals, decide. It is political Islam, repeatedly shut-down and stripped of their elective roles by the Turkish military, that has finally pushed the military out of the public sphere. Hundreds of military officers are now in prison awaiting trial for their latest coup plot. For the first time in modern Turkish history the possibilities of military dictatorship are negligible. Many secular liberals we meet in Istanbul, however wary they are of this meld of piety and politics, cannot help but murmur their gratitude for this historic accomplishment.

History is not morally neat. If the Turks are indebted to the Islamic parties for bringing them democracy, the ruling Islamic party is indebted to the authoritarian Turkish state for providing the conditions of their empowerment. It was the Turkish state's authoritarian secularism -- "fundamentalist" religious Turks call it -- that created the conditions for both the Islamist adoption of liberal democracy and the politicization of religion. The fear of repression forced Muslim political forces towards an embrace of the secularity of the state because only a secular liberal state would allow them to survive. But it also made Muslims political in the first place.

In the United States, secularism means separation of state and religion: no state religious establishment and free expression of religion. In Turkey secularism means state control of Islam and the exclusion of Islam from the public sphere, an enforced privatization of religion. Ataturk's secular republic had shut down all independent mosques, forbid independent religious associations, made every preacher and prayer leader into a state employee. If you were a Turkish Muslim and wanted to pray and study the Qur'an and the hadith, you had to do it the state way, or go underground. When democracy came to Turkey, Muslim political parties -- which in part grew out of clandestine Islamic brotherhoods -- became the only legitimate way to fashion your own Islamic identity outside state control. And because Islam is a blueprint for social order, religion for many Turkish Muslims was already politics anyway.

It was women who made this historic transformation possible. The religious parties won because hundreds of thousands of head-scarfed Muslim women, going house to house to drink tea with housewives and their children, galvanized an electoral landslide on their behalf. Indeed, when Prime Minister Erdogan first ran for mayor, he personally mobilized Istanbul's women's networks to bring him to power.

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Why do women support them? The AK party gets more support from women than from men. Yet the party marginalizes women, particularly headscarved women, in its party apparatus and among its parliamentary candidates. Turkey has one of the lowest rates of female labor force participation (18 percent in the cities) in the OECD. Yet the AK party opposes any kind of affirmative action for women. Indeed women's proportion of the workforce has actually declined during AK party rule.

Women support the AK Party not as abstract, rational individuals who want a chance to compete in the market, but as pious mothers who want to defend their families. The AK party stands for conservative values of family piety. The Prime Minister hammers home the message that women are vital as mothers of the nation, those who will create the virtuous citizens necessary to a strong Turkey. He urges them to have more children, three per mom. His government eliminated any requirements that employers provide childcare to their employees; it reduced maternity leave. Mothers, if they can, should be home with their children.

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The religious women who support the AK party wear their headscarves to mark their sense of specialness, not their subordination. They wear it as a refusal of the sensuous excess upon which global capitalism feeds, the way women's erotic bodies are used to sell merchandise. They enter the public sphere not as individuals who are women, the fact of which must not be allowed to get in their way, but as women who are individuals whose natural role as mothers must be protected and sustained. They are God's creatures, not individuals defined by the market or the state.

Women support Erdogan's Islamic party because they see it as a way to defend the family, not Turkey's traditional extended patriarchy in which a woman's status was defined by her sexual honor, but a modern family based on companionate marriage where husband and wife enjoy equal civil rights. The AK party collaborated -- if reluctantly -- with secular feminists to improve women's legal status in the family, legally affirming women's right to control their own bodies, criminalizing marital rape. Men were no longer legally defined as heads of the family; women no longer needed their permission to work. And at the same time, although Erdogan backed away, he sought to criminalize adultery in order, he said, to protect wives from cheating husbands. It is the AK party's refusal to treat sex as a civil right that propels them into illiberal waters. The party insisted, for instance, on criminalizing publication of sexual obscenity -- typically the erotic bodies of women.

The AK regime is also transforming the status of women within Islam. Just like its anti-religious predecessors, it now controls Turkish Islam through its appointments to the Directorate of Religious Affairs. On the one hand, the Directorate promotes the idea that the headscarf is a religious obligation. On the other, it seeks to purge Islam of unnecessary misogyny by creating a collection of hadith, or sayings ascribed to the Prophet, in which denigrations of women are eliminated or put in historical context. Its sermons denounce honor killings. It is appointing women preachers for the first time. Just like Khomeini's Islamist movement in Iran, the AK party has brought hundreds of thousands of ordinary religious women, many of modest means, into the public sphere for the first time in their lives. These women, who were often made to feel inferior by their secular, Westernized middle class counterparts, feel validated, empowered, valued.

This political process has led to the birth of a Turkish Islamic feminism. "If there is no candidate with a head scarf than there will be no votes," Nazife Sisman tells us, referring to the absence of covered women put forward by the AK party as candidates. Sisman, who is sometimes derided as a "feminist devil" in her own community, is one of those Muslim women who increasingly demand their own.

In Turkey, it is a crime to criticize Kemal Ataturk. On this day, at this moment, one should take particular care. Sisman, clad in dark tones, yet radiating the knowing warmth of a big intellectual mother, begins speaking to us when the siren wails announcing the moment of memorialization of Ataturk's death. The country stops in silence.

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"Ataturk became a Lenin of Turkey," she declares to my students as the moment passes and she begins her talk. Sisman is not afraid of taboos.

"Women in Turkey live with the difficulties of secularism not the difficulty of Islamists," she says. One of those difficulties is the way enforced secularization, which paralyzed a beleaguered Muslim community, cut off the debate over women's rights among the Muslims. It is time, she argues, to revive it, to create an Islam that will better align with modernity. Women, she insists, can secure their rights within Islam.

Sisman explains to us that although feminism carries negative connotations as being anti-family and sexually permissive, it was the Turkish feminists who took up the cause of the Muslim women denied their right to wear headscarves. Because the generals had crushed other forms of political organization, for a long while secular feminists -- particularly radical feminists -- were the only legitimate players left on the field who could and would carry forward the Muslim women's cause. Denying only women the right to choose how to dress is an issue of gender equality.

And gender is the issue here -- because most Turks don't know what it is. Olcay Ozer, from the Gender Forum at Sibanci Univesity, goes out to Turkey's schools to try to train teachers -- most of whom are secular -- about the ways in which women are stereotyped in the textbooks and the curriculum. The notion of gender, that a female identity or role is socially constructed, is completely foreign to them. The term, she says, is offensive to the Turkish ear as it translates as "social sexuality." The teachers she meets generally don't encourage their girl students to work, except as nurses and teachers. "Should men give birth? Should a father become a mother?" she recalls one flummoxed teacher's reply.

The subordination of women is not just a religious issue. Most girls who do not pursue high school or college education make that choice because of parental pressure. To change women's roles will require crossing the secular-religious divide. Politically active Muslim women have increasingly adopted feminist frames as their own, even if many of them are unwilling to call themselves feminists. They saw how uncomfortable their presence in the public sphere made Muslim men. These women increasingly challenge the traditional powers of men as something that has to do with patriarchy, not Islam itself. Islam, women like Sisman argue, has been distorted by centuries of self-interested male interpretation.

Secular feminists mobilize around the goal of individual equality; the Muslim women with whom we meet speak rather about justice. Justice is the cornerstone in the Hanafi tradition of Islamic jurisprudence in which the Ottoman empire grounded itself. It is through this lens of justice that Sisman re-casts women's rights within Islam. The problem with secular feminism, she argues, is that it denies the most important hierarchy, not between men and women, but between God and humans. The relation between husband and wife is not for her an exchange, but a set of reciprocal ethical obligations that derive from God. The Creator gave women and men different natural "duties": respectively to give birth and raise children and to protect and support those women. A man's economic "burden," she says, is a "compensation for not giving birth." It would be unjust if women could not count on that male support. (Some 80 percent of AK party supporters agree that men should be given preferential access to jobs when unemployment is high.) If the social order is an obstacle to mothering, it should be changed. Before modern capitalism came women were able to work and be mothers at the same time on their farms and in their workshops. Better to change an unjust capitalism than to tinker with the plan of the Creator.

The future of Turkish democracy depends on the ability of its religious and secular citizens to reach across the divide, whether between secular and religious women who want to secure a better future for themselves and their daughters, or between the republican and Islamist businessmen who both want to secure the conditions of their common profitability. Common interests can help knit together a country divided by divergent identities.

But ultimately, it will be a question of whether Turks can live with their differences. That Turkish Islam is based on a tradition that believes that God's will is knowable through reason is certainly an advantage in this task. For centuries the Ottomans made Istanbul into a cosmopolitan jewel by giving the Greeks, Jews, Christians and Muslims their own spaces and allowing them to abide by their own rules of private life. In today's Istanbul, secular and religious do live in different areas. The future of Turkish democracy hinges on the willingness of the reigning Islamic political forces to resist the urge to impose their private moral standards on their secular neighbors, to not do to others what was done to them. Hopefully Istanbul's women will point the way.

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Members of the NYU-AD Fall, 2011 seminar on Religion, Nation-State and the Politics of Gender: Umair Ahsan, Tessa Carelli, Cassandra Flores, Debra Friedland (ex-officio), Simon Huang, Suel Huseynzade, Kate Macina, Andrew Platonov, Nasser Siadat, Thomas Taylor, Alex Wang, Charlotte Wang, Thomas White, Austin Wilson.

Photography by Roger Friedland, Debra Friedland, Nasser Siadat.

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