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Veiled Women Versus Conservative Men

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers’ comments] About a month ago, a group of veiled Turkish women initiated a bold campaign: “No veiled deputy; no vote!” They were calling on political parties, including the incumbent Justice and Development Party, or AKP, to take a revolutionary step in the upcoming elections by offering some candidates who wore the Islamic headscarf. “The gap between Parliament and the society should be filled,” their declaration read, “and this discrimination against veiled women must end.” In my view, this group, which called itself the “Gathering Women Platform,” was absolutely right. The Turkish Republic has indeed carried out a secularist apartheid against practicing Muslims. Women who wear the headscarf have been the foremost victims, for their very practice is very visible. Hence they have been banned from all schools, universities, official jobs and political posts, and turned into second-class citizens. How dare they? That’s why I recently wrote a column (in Turkish) supporting the “No veiled deputy; no vote!” campaign. Various liberals have also supported the cause. But, interestingly, the same support did not come so powerfully from conservative pundits. One of them, the consistently anti-modern Ali Bulaç, even criticized the “gathering women” quite harshly. According to Bulaç, having veiled deputies at Parliament would have been a dangerous provocation against the secularist establishment, which could respond with yet another “closure case” against the AKP. For me, this could have been taken as a reasonable (yet exaggerated) fear, but Bulaç had more to say. He accused the veiled women in question to be “influenced by feminism,” to be “snobbish” and to “dare to reinterpret the basic references of Islam.” Moreover, according to Bulaç, some of these “gathering women” were naïve, whereas others were the “fifth column” of the powers that be — the secularist authoritarians who were looking for opportunities to crack down on the AKP. These women were, in other terms, either stupid or evil. After this frontal attack, two of the veiled women in question, Hilal Kaplan and Nihal Bengisu, columnists for Yeni Şafak and Habertürk respectively, wrote back. Kaplan, who is known for her liberal views on issues ranging from the Kurdish question to the Armenian tragedy, denounced Bulaç’s misogynist attitude. What really lies behind the latter, she argued, was the conservative belief that women should “know their limits” in society. “Is it possible,” Kaplan asked, “that what Bulaç cannot stand is the veiled [women] who work and make money, rather than just staying at home and looking after children? Or is it that these women can step up in society with intellectual and civil initiatives, creating public spaces for themselves, without looking at what the male intellectuals say?” “Apparently,” Kaplan added, “some ‘conservative’ men will appreciate us only when we say, ‘We don’t know; our teachers or husbands do,’ and not interfere in their job.” The other writer among “gathering women,” the witty columnist Bengisu, raised a similar protest to Bulaç and the likeminded conservative men in her column. “The veiled women, whom you think should only wash your socks,” she wrote, “are now engaging in civil society and discussing public issues.” That could have been the reason, according to Bengisu, why old-fashioned conservatives such as Bulaç were nervous about the defiance of the Muslim women of the new age. Emancipation matters Now, here is my take on all this. I don’t know whether the AKP or any other party will show candidates with veils. But the debate is likely to continue, and the self-confidence of the Islamic feminists in question is only likely to grow. And, for me, as a believer in gender equality, that is all very good news. It is not just good, but also quite telling. For it shows us how the much-discussed emancipation of women in the Muslim world will come about. Since the 19th century, both many Europeans and Europeanized Easterners believed that the problem was Islam, and the liberation of women could come only via enforced secularization. Accordingly, secularist authoritarians in the Muslim world — such as Atatürk of Turkey, Reza Shah of Iran, or the recently-deposed Ben Ali of Tunis — took tyrannical measures such as banning the veil and, instead, imposing “the modern dress code.” Yet the matter was not Islam, but the patriarchal culture of traditional society. No wonder some of the secularized women remained equally patriarchal — as seen among some Turkish upper-class women, whose miniskirts are matched only with their minimal sense of individualism. On the other hand, there emerged Islamic feminists such as Kaplan or Bengisu, who remain loyal to their faith but who have the individual guts to stand up against “male domination.” God bless them — and their efforts. They are the ones who seek a way different from those of the bigoted secularists and the bigoted Islamists. Their third way, one could say, is also the right way.
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