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Empowering Muslim Women, One Treadmill at a Time

03/15/2013 10:14 am ET | Updated May 15, 2013

By Stephanie Ormston, MBA candidate, Boston University School of Management

Istanbul -- where the East and the West collide -- is the only city in the world to sit on two continents. This city has seen scores of people fighting to call this land their home, shining light on another great battle that is being waged all over Turkey today. Currently, the vast majority of the population is Muslim -- obviously to varying degrees of piety. Also, due to its position as a conduit of trade and culture between the East and the West, it has also developed a strong secular mentality. Thus, it is hard to differentiate which norms are based in religion, and are thus more difficult to alter, and which are social, and consequently more amenable. Caught between a Western feminism that preaches male and female equality, both in the workplace and at the home, and the traditions that govern the duties of daughters, mothers, and wives, Turkish women face an identity crisis. Facing this identity crisis, is the notion of an empowered, Muslim female then a contradiction, or a possibility? Luckily, Turkish women have a kindred spirit in an entrepreneur named Bedriye Hulya who is showing them that this goal is not only possible, but also achievable.

Ms. Hulya is someone who marches to the beat of her own drum. Though she has always dealt with the inequality inherent in Turkish society, she was never able to put a finger on it. It was not until she moved to New York to study psychology that she was able to define it. She realized that the inequality is "enmeshed in our relationships and our norms." Take gyms, for example. A Turkish woman's access to a gym is limited. Most gyms are male-dominated, and it is considered inappropriate for a woman to be seen in such spaces. Those gyms that are open to women tend to be prohibitively costly -- especially as many women lack access to funds. Concurrently with her move to New York, she also started thinking about a possible solution.

Upon her return to Turkey in 2004, Ms. Hulya founded B-fit, a chain of gyms in Turkey run by women, for women. She wanted women to have a space where they could not only improve their fitness, but also learn more about themselves. The goal was not only to encourage women to work out, in order to improve their physical fitness, but to also begin reaping the psychological benefits that come with increased physical activity. Her model is simple: create a space where women can feel comfortable in their own bodies and have that space be owned and operated by women.

But B-fit is not just about providing women a space where they can work out, it is about giving women the sense of control, responsibility, and ownership involved in running a business. One of the biggest problems that Ms. Hulya faces, in maintaining her rule of only franchising to women, is funding. Women's access to capital in Turkey is constrained as assets are held and managed by the family patriarch. The cost of purchasing a franchise often far exceeds the loan that any microcredit would provide, and so, a woman has no choice but to ask the bank or her husband for the money. In addition, there are many cultural barriers to work for women. Not only husbands and fathers, but brothers, sons, and even mothers often stand in the way of a woman seeking personal and financial fulfillment.

Ms. Hulya has not been immune to these struggles in her own life, as she has made personal sacrifices to pursue her dreams. Called a "serial entrepreneur" by Endeavor, she has left a trail of businesses in her wake that continue to thrive. With all this work, she was even late to her own wedding, but she says the marriage "was okay because [she] was a hardworking woman from the start." It was only when her husband also became her business partner in a hotel venture in Bodrum that the marriage crumbled. She feels that it was because she "wasn't playing the desired role." Ms. Hulya observes that even her franchisees face this challenge, "If there are not three different dishes on the table at night, the husband will say everything has changed... they are afraid of that change."

Hardened by both her personal and professional struggles, Ms. Hulya is passionate about using her entrepreneurial approach to create a new future for Turkish women. To address the problems of funding, B-Fit takes its profits and issues loans to worthy applicants. To address the challenges of cultural barriers, B-fit educates women across the nation through workshops, classes, and focus groups. Some of these classes are initiated by the franchisees themselves. An extension of B-fit, B-connected, works to educate franchisees and employees in ways to address issues of inequality within their own communities. With over 50,000 members and 250 gyms, B-fit's reach is far, and growing. Ms. Hulya's goals in the years ahead are nothing short of visionary as she foresees B-fit becoming a place where empowered Muslim women come to "be stronger wives and get what they want out of life."

The gym brings in women who want to change their bodies, but in the end, these women end up changing their relationships, their self-image, and even their state of minds. Like achieving weight loss goals, Ms. Hulya sees that equality is not achieved without breaking a sweat, "If you want to be equal you can't expect a man to open your door or light your cigarettes." Ms. Hulya is empowering Turkish women to see that equality is within their reach, and that their status in life is a choice, whether it is to be equal or otherwise. She warns though that "If you want the man to earn the bread, I'm sorry, but, you have to sweep the floor."

Stephanie Ormston is a writer for Student Reporter. We are a journalism incubator and online media outlet, providing media coverage of events and featuring current topics in management and economics around the world. This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, in recognition of the latter's Social Entrepreneurs Class of 2013. To see all the post in the series, click here. For more of our work, visit us on studentreporter.org. A typical b-fit gym; Source: b-fit.com.trA typical b-fit gym; Source: b-fit.com.tr