February 13, 2015

Muslim Women and Feminism—or Not?

                   Originally published on Daily Sabah, author H. Sule Albayrak

Muslim Women: Feminist or Defender of Patriarchal Order

In recent years, we have witnessed an increasing visibility of Islam both in Turkey and around the world. With greater social mobility, Muslims are seeking to increase not only their economic, but also their social and cultural capital, thus acquiring an ability to penetrate into the social sphere. At the same time, they are faced with the opportunity and necessity of reassessing their values, beliefs and practices. The educated, urban Muslim woman, whose influence in social life has increased, is at the center of this process. She is criticized by some for adapting to the secular world, and by others for not being modern enough. But in any case, she is regularly subjected to definition and labeling. What about the Muslim woman's own identity and self-definition? The way the Muslim woman constructs herself as a subject from the perspective of her value system is not an object of much interest neither in our country nor in the world. Hence, this piece is for those who are open to an alternative approach.

Obligatory feminism

Pious women (most of them wearing the headscarf), taking part in the public realm, leading a professional life and engaging in activism for a more equitable society are subjected to various definitions. While usually viewed as feminist or Islamic/Islamist, these women are also sometimes described only as Islamist or fundamentalist. Although we see the term fundamentalist used less frequently in recent years, the designations "feminist" or "Islamic feminist" in particular, subject these women to a coarse categorization against their will. Actually, this attitude reflects the view that the Muslim woman cannot be a subject, and that her ideas about herself cannot be reliable. As such, it ceases to be a situation seen in everyday life alone, but gains currency in intellectual and academic arenas as well. Thus, a social-scientific approach that claims to give priority to understanding slips into self-denial from the very beginning.

At an international conference last year, an American sociologist who presented a study on Kuwaiti women, referred to them as "Islamic feminists." In fact, she forcibly attached a label to these women that they themselves deemed unsuitable. Indeed, during the presentation, she said "Actually, these women objected to being called feminists. Nevertheless, I define them as Islamic feminists anyway." With this statement, she not only adopted an Orientalist stance that claims authority to define the East at will, but also illustrated the fact that when the Muslim woman is in question, even the methodology of uncovering the meanings people ascribe to their behavior - one of the fundamental principles of the social sciences - could be laid aside.

Again, a dialogue between a women's rights activist and Nazife Şişman, one of Turkey's leading female intellectuals, represented an attempt to rebuke Muslim women who have a false consciousness. As is understood from Şişman's account, her interlocutor did not find her explanation that she is not a feminist very convincing, and went so far as to insistently try to persuade her that she is a feminist. In another instance, Miriam Cooke, known for her studies on Arab women, said she did not understand why Şişman refuses to call herself a feminist.

Muslim woman's demand for rights

Interestingly enough, being a defender of her civil, social and political rights as a public subject, the Muslim woman is exposed to an attribution of "feminism" against her will. On the other hand, it is deemed legitimate to deprive her of these rights, contrary to that attribution, on the grounds that she has internalized the patriarchal religious order. In this way, the Muslim woman who has had difficulty for decades even with receiving public service, let alone giving it, is construed as the "other" to the modern woman. But when the same woman demands a fairer role distribution, she deserves to be defined as feminist. We need to call attention to several issues to understand the contradiction here. First of all, the designation feminist has been turned into a term, which covers every kind of pursuit for rights, by women. And every demand for improving women's social status and solving her problems is regarded as feminism. In this manner, the Muslim woman's demand for rights is described in women's studies in the West as "Islamic feminism." In Turkey, on the other hand, secular feminists try to disengage themselves from pious women, whom they see as socio-culturally inferior, through the designation "Islamic feminist." However, even those women with a distinctive religious identity, who actually do define themselves as feminist, say that the term Islamic feminism should be essentially used for only those people who apply feminist critique to religious texts. So, this reductionism restricts not only those women who feel lukewarm toward feminism, but also Muslim women who are interested in feminism or consider it as a part of their identity.

On the other hand, the Muslim woman who has no thought of losing sight of her religious anchoring cannot be analyzed by a secularist, civilian, political and intellectual elite who has not yet broken free from a monolithic approach to modernization. This is because this new profile does not fit existing mental templates. That intellectual conformism within such circles, together with an unwillingness to share the public realm, leads to a sort of reaction that contains hatred, too. Indeed, despite efforts toward a fairer sharing, which have been occurring now for more than 10 years, it is noticed that the public realm in Turkey is still dominated largely by secularist civilian-economic elites. In spite of all the exaggerated discourses, the relative freedom in public space obtained by the religious section of society in general, and pious women in particular, is not enough to break the decades-long secularist hegemony. Considering that the balance of economic power in Turkey is still heavily skewed toward the secularists, the situation becomes clearer.

Feminists can't make jam?

Those who believe they are competent to comment on the identity of pious women are not limited to secularist elites or social scientists. Along with them, some conservative segments of society also feel qualified to comment on who is feminist and who is not, by taking certain cultural criteria as a basis. As a result, those departing from the traditional role of women can be faced with the pejorative epithet "feminist." Some of them are described as feminist because of their intellectual concerns, some for having an area of interest different from her husband's, and some for not knowing how to make jam. A different type of confusion emerges here. Pious women's ties with Muslim women in history - those who had engaged in science or had formed their own opinions and been highly respected - in general and intellectual Ottoman women in particular, have been severed. Pious women have managed to access higher education despite all restrictions and have subsequently entered into public space after having been kept out of the social arena. But they may be met with surprise at times, not only by secularists, but also those segments of society that are unaware of women's past heritage.

How does the pious woman define herself amid all these debates raging around her? It must be noted, that she can define herself by avoiding a monolithic approach, that there are a few pious women who identify themselves as feminist. But the newly-emerging public woman profile also includes those women who try to create opportunities of living out their faith in the modern world and who describe themselves as Islamist. There is a larger group of women, however, who avoid ideological orientation, and are content with describing themselves with the epithet "Muslim," a word chosen by God. Seeing feminism as a distinctive stage in the story of the Western woman, while not denying the contributions of the feminist experience, this new woman's profile depicts society not as an arena where women and men compete, but as a space where they live in harmony and cooperation. Although realizing this vision of harmony and cooperation brings many problems along with it, the search for an alternative to feminist discourse continues, accompanied by concepts such as rights, justice and trust. But this entirely respectable effort meets with contempt, objections and even attacks from secularist and feminist circles.

At the international Women and Justice Summit held by the Women and Democracy Association (KADEM) in Istanbul on Nov. 24-25, 2014, there was an attempt to bring forward a gender justice discourse that offers an alternative to the hegemonic feminist discourse of equality. In fact, this initiative also reveals the courage of the subject of this article: the newly-emerging public pious woman's profile. Offering a discourse of justice, that also envisages equality at points where the equality discourse is deficient, is interpreted by some as a backward step for women. However, it accompanies searches in the intellectual world, which has realized that existing discourses are not sufficient to improve women's status in society, passing beyond mere equality. I think it is within the bounds of possibility for pious women to attain a discourse and a stance that does not conflict with their world of values, on the condition that a rigorous study is conducted into the possibility, and new areas of debate are opened.

H. Sule Albayrak is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Theology at Marmara University in Istanbul, Turkey.

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