Turkey: Religious-secularist mix impacts women's rights

WLUML Networkers/CGNews
Sertaç Sehlikoğlu Karakaş, a Women Living Under Muslim Laws' networker, examines how Turkey's hybrid secular-Muslim identity has affected its commitment to empowering women.
Turkey has strong ties both with its Muslim history and with secularism, understood as not mixing religion with politics. After decades of struggling between these two identities, this strategic NATO ally and EU contender has developed a hybrid identity that encompasses both. As a result, Turkey has been increasingly perceived as a liberal and progressive face of Islam on the global stage and, in congruence with the true spirit of the religion, it is demonstrating its commitment to the empowerment of women.
In order to positively affect women's daily lives, it will take engaged leadership by religious scholars and feminists in addition to government-initiated reforms.

The Presidency of Religious Affairs (PRA), the government institution overseeing religious matters since it was established in 1924, and the highest Islamic authority in Turkey, is at the centre of the debate on religion and women. The PRA – which currently employs approximately 83,000 clerics in local mosques – was originally limited to the administration of mosques, but now focuses more on developing new interpretations of Islam.

Recently, the PRA initiated a review of hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) which was well-received by Turkish society and reverberated beyond national borders.

According to the PRA's explanation, the project's aim is to raise awareness about the inaccuracy of apocryphal hadiths accumulated after the death of the Prophet Muhammad by re-emphasising the importance of morally credible and viable sources. For example, many cultural traditions that were considered unfair to women were wrongly attributed to the Prophet and were added to hadith collections even though their chains of transmission were flawed.

The project is expected to yield a collection of hadiths on women combined in a five-volume publication. Its aim is to support women's rights activists in their fight against "honour" killings, violence against women and misogyny in general.

In addition, since 2005, the PRA has also offered its female employees the opportunity to upgrade their educational and professional skills so that they become better qualified for higher-ranking positions.

According to Ali Bardakoğlu, president of the PRA, the institution has suffered from a lack of women's contributions for decades. The PRA's goal in recent years has been to promote women to the highest levels of the institution, which Bardakoğlu hopes to accomplish by gradually incorporating them into the PRA structure. Women will be promoted to positions of assistant cleric, cleric and mufti (an official scholar of Islamic law). Bardakoğlu does not deny that men have thus far been more influential within Islamic institutions, but states that the absence of women in such positions has been due to their lack of higher education – a reality that can be changed.

Despite the women-friendly attitude and speeches of Bardakoğlu, parts of the institution appear reluctant to change. Soon after the PRA's declaration in 2005, which announced its intent to hire 200 new female preachers and appoint women as muftis and vice-muftis, a member of the institution authored an article on how women should behave around men so as not to arouse men's sexual desire.

Thanks to a vigilant feminist response, the article was removed from the PRA's website and the institute issued an apology. Strong female criticism – both from those outside the institution and those within it – is essential to holding the PRA to its goal of empowering women. Feminists continue to push the PRA to implement and institutionalise initiatives that are more inclusive of women.

Over the last four years, the PRA has successfully implemented target quotas for women in higher level positions – seven women have already been appointed to the position of vice-mufti – and established bureaus in 21 cities across the country to address concerns of local women.

The drive towards greater empowerment of women in Turkey has affected not only women's representation in the PRA, but also society more broadly. The well-known religious leader Fethullah Gulen wrote an article in the Turkish newspaper, Zaman, in September 2008 on the topic of domestic violence. He stated that a woman should be brave enough to take legal action against her husband if she is beaten. Gulen referenced a newer interpretation of religious texts with a Sufi perspective to support his advice.

Gulen explained that in the case of domestic violence the husband should be perceived as zalim, meaning tyrannical, and judged guilty of exercising unjust power. Such interpretations can give women the legal backing to press criminal charges against their husbands, or to achieve monetary retribution for mistreatment. His comments provide invaluable scholarly justification for the many women who have long been advocating similar views.

Developing modern religious interpretations to address women's issues provides a rich and strong foundation for feminist discourses. The PRA has made significant progress in developing modern and accurate religious interpretations generally and specifically on the subject of women. Though Muslim women still have a long way to go to achieve the rights due to them in Islam, the PRA's reforms – including giving women access to clerical positions and the prevalence of new interpretations of religious sources – are slowly paving the road to empowerment.

Feminists are prompting many of these changes in religious interpretation. In turn, strengthening women's rights by referencing religion provides guidelines for women living in other Muslim countries, a project which is consistent with Turkey's mission to become a model of a modern Muslim country.

Sertaç Sehlikoğlu Karakaş is a women's rights activist and WLUML networker. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in anthropology at the University of Toronto. This article is part of a series on Muslim women and their religious rights written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

29 April 2009