Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

'Breaking the Silence': The Religious Muslim Women's Movement in Turkey

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

'Breaking the Silence': The Religious Muslim Women's Movement in Turkey

Article excerpt

Abstract

This article explores the emergence of the religious Muslim women's movement in the 1990s in Turkey, and its relation with the broader women's movement, including the exclusion of religious Muslim women from the women's movement. My analysis is based on interviews I conducted in April and May 2006 with religious Muslim women who work in non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and participate in joint projects with other women's NGOs in Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey. I argue that because of a modernist perspective which views both the headscarf and religious Muslim women as 'backward', as opposed to the 'ideal female citizen' as secular and 'modern', religious Muslim women have been largely excluded from women's movements in Turkey. However, religious Muslim women are challenging this binary categorization and struggle to break the stereotype of 'backwardness' that is put upon them; instead they are seeking to reconstruct an identity that is neither 'modern' nor 'anti-modern'.

Keywords: headscarf, religious Muslim women, modernity

Introduction

A letter from Canan Aritman, a member of the Turkish parliament, to Emine Erdogan, the headscarf-wearing wife of the current President, illustrates the perception of 'ideal' Turkish woman:

   Your dress style injures the image of Turkish women. Your personal
   choices cause an incorrect image of Turkish women abroad. If you
   will not change, stay at home ... I respect your personal choices.
   But modern Turkish Republican women are not wearing headscarves,
   and have adopted the Western, civilized dress code. (2)

As Aritman's statement reveals, the modernist conception regards the headscarf as a sign of 'backwardness' and 'uncivilizedness'. Even though Turkey's population is mostly Muslim, the modernist view of the headscarf and Islam as a threat to secularism is prevalent, and has deep roots in the adoption of the secularist discourse of modernity in the early years of Turkish Republic. During the early Republican years, the 'ideal' female citizen was constructed as non-headscarf wearing, urban, educated and visible in the public sphere, in contrast to women who were wearing headscarves, who were construed as uneducated, rural, 'anti-secular' and 'anti-modern'. This binary categorization along with the implementation of the ban on the heasdscarf in universities during the 1980s, has produced two polarized groups among Turkish women's movements: one supporting the ban on the headscarf and the other countering the ban on the headscarf.

This article deals with the emergence of the religious Muslim women's movement in Turkey in the 1990s. It consists of the analysis of interviews I conducted during Spring 2006 with women from four leading religious Muslim women's non-governmental organizations (NGOs): Baskent Kadin Platformu-BKP (Capital Women's Platform, Ankara); Hazar Grubu (Caspian Group); Ayrimciliga Karsi Kadin Haklari Dernegi-AK-DER (Women's Rights Association Against Discrimination), and Hanimlar Egitim ve Kultur Vakfi-HEKVA (Women Education and Culture Foundation). Based on these interviews, and the journals and websites of these groups, I explore the religious Muslim women's movement's relation with the broader movement, as well as the exclusion of religious Muslim women from the women's movements in Turkey. I argue that because of the modernist perception of the headscarf and the categorization of religious Muslim women as 'backward' as opposed to the 'ideal female citizen' as secular and 'modern', religious Muslim women have been largely excluded from women's movements in Turkey. However, I claim that religious Muslim women are challenging the binary categorization and struggle to break the stereotype of 'backwardness' that is directed at them, instead constructing new identities that are neither 'modern' nor 'anti-modern'.

The Modernization Process in Turkey and the Construction of Turkish Woman's Citizenship

The modernization process commenced at the beginning of the nineteenth century during the Ottoman Empire with the 1923 foundation of the Turkish Republic, and accelerated through the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, and the modernizing elites in the early period of the Republic (1920s and 1930s). …

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