Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Islamic Women's Groups and the Quest for Political Representation in Turkey and Iran

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Islamic Women's Groups and the Quest for Political Representation in Turkey and Iran

Article excerpt

This article presents Islamic women's framing processes in their campaigns to address women's political underrepresentation in Iran and Turkey. It argues that while Turkish women justify their claims through international human rights discourses, Iranian women frame their demands in religious terms to find resonance with political elites. Women's strategic framing processes demonstrate the extent to which women's demands for equal representation are shaped by the political and discursive opportunity structures that arise out of their secular or theocratic contexts.

In many Muslim-majority countries, Islamic movements and parties tend to negatively view women's access to political leadership positions.1 The dominant gender discourse of these movements, which is often based on patriarchal interpretations of religious texts, views women's proper place to be within the domestic sphere as mothers and wives, and largely denies women an active presence in the public sphere, including in political decision-making. Scholarly analysis of women's activities and involvement in political parties that arise out of Islamic political movements has persuasively argued that despite the high level of women's political participation on behalf of such parties, women tend to have low levels of political representation.2 For instance, a number of scholars have pointed to the fact that many Islamic political parties have mobilized and politicized women to serve merely as campaigners and grassroots organizers to help bring the party to power, or have used women's bodies and dress as public markers of their identity claims. But once in power, the male elites of such parties have often denied women any real power or influence in formal politics.3 Although this kind of discrimination is not exclusive to religious movements and parties, it is often assumed that religiously motivated parties are more detrimental to women's political representation than are their secular counterparts. The works of scholars such as Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris and Steven Fish fall within this line of argumentation by emphasizing religious and cultural barriers, namely Islam and patriarchal attitudes, as the primary reasons for women's limited access to positions of political authority.4

A surprising recent trend that challenges the current literature's overwhelming emphasis on the religious/cultural obstacles that keep women out of political decisionmaking is the modest increases in the percentage of women in political leadership on behalf of some religious political parties in various Muslim-majority countries. For instance, Clark and Schwedler have observed that in Yemen and Jordan the percentage of women assuming political office has modestly increased in the wake of conservative and Islamist forces' rise to power.5 This trend is also present in Turkey and Iran, the two case studies of this research. Regardless of Turkey's secular or Iran's theocratic political frameworks, women's access to political leadership positions increased under the watch of conservative and religious forces, and (unexpectedly) not under liberalreformist or secular parties. In Turkey, the recent notable increases in the percentage of female parliamentarians (currently at its highest ever at 17.5%) coincides with the 2002 rise to power of the conservative Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, henceforth AKP, but often called the AK Party by supporters). The AKP was founded in 2001 by members of defunct Turkish Islamist parties (Refah, the Welfare Party; and Fazilet, the Virtue Party). Since its landslide victory in 2002, the AKP, which identifies itself as a "conservative democratic" rather than "Islamist" party, has steadily increased its percentage of popular votes in general elections, although it significantly underperformed in the June 2015 general elections and lost its parliamentary majority.6 Due to the AKP's official support of a secular system in which public displays of religion have a place, I identify this party as "pro-religious. …

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