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Turkey: Secular Country Encourages Women To Take Greater Part In Religious Life

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Reversing centuries of tradition, Turkish authorities have decided that women will be allowed to participate more actively in the country's public religious life, arguing they should be granted responsibilities equal to those of men before Islam. The move appears to be an attempt on the part of religious authorities in the predominantly Muslim but strictly secular country to catch up with transformations that have been stirring in society for many years. It could also serve as a test for Turkey's social cohesiveness.

Prague, 24 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Religious authorities in predominantly Sunni Muslim Turkey have taken an unprecedented step by ruling that women should be allowed to participate in public religious life in the same way as men.

The decision was made at a four-day seminar earlier this month in Istanbul attended by religious clerics and university scholars. The Directorate for Religious Affairs, the state-controlled body that monitors Muslim communities in this secular country, made it public on 19 May.

Provisions of the new religious code state that women should be allowed to attend regular prayers in mosques along with men, although they will be required to stay in separate rooms. Likewise, the new regulation says women should be allowed to attend funeral services, but only if they stand behind men.

Although the public participation of women in Turkey's religious life has never been governed by written rules, female believers have been customarily kept from mosques and regular prayer meetings, effectively forced to perform religious rites at home.

Reversing centuries of tradition under which women were considered unfit to perform sacred rites during menstruation, the clerics and scholars also decided that women should be allowed to pray and read from the Koran during these times.

In comments published in the "Hurriyet" daily newspaper on 19 May, the head of the Directorate for Religious Affairs, Mehmet Nuri Yilmaz, said believers will remain free to follow the new rules or ignore them, but that clerics and priests will have to abide by them and answer all questions they might raise among the public.

Participants at the conference justified their decision by saying that "there is no legal, moral or social differences" between men and women and that Islam should grant them equal responsibilities. Such an assessment invalidates the traditional belief that the testimony given by one man to a religious court equals that of two women.

"Hurriyet" quoted Yasar Nuri Ozturk, the dean of the faculty of theology at Istanbul University, as describing some of the new provisions as revolutionary.

Nilufer Gole is a Turkish scholar who teaches sociology at the Paris-based School for Higher Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS). She is the author of many books on women and religion in Middle Eastern societies, including "The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling."

Gole says that, if the decision to open mosque doors to women may be seen as revolutionary, it also meets a social demand: "This reform follows practices that have already been taking place and that have sometimes stirred public outcry, such as women reading prayers at funerals. Such practices are seen as illicit. They are banned under Islam, rather under Islamic rites. [This reform movement] began with women demanding the right to read funeral prayers on the front row, alongside men. This public debate on how to reform Islam has been going on for two or three years now."

Semih Vaner is a Turkish researcher at the Paris-based Center for International Studies and Research (CERI). He told RFE/RL that he, too, believes the Directorate for Religious Affairs decided to catch up with ongoing social changes that were most noticeable in urban areas: "I think there was a push in that direction which, to some extent, was limited to Istanbul, Ankara, and other major cities. But the Directorate [for Religious Affairs] did not seem to be shocked by such practices. In my view, [it] has simply decided to accompany this movement, but I doubt it was the initiator of the process. I believe there was a process in the making, that things were changing and that, simply, the Directorate for Religious Affairs chose not to oppose them."

Turkey has been a secular state since the proclamation of the republic in October 1923 and the subsequent abolition of the caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Fearing a backlash by supporters of the Shariah, or Islamic law, Ataturk chose to give secularism a strong anticlerical character, banning religion from public life. His objective was not to abolish religion but rather to free his fellow countrymen from what he considered Islam's sometimes oppressive and backward-looking influence.

The democratization of Turkey's political life in the late 1940s allowed for some infringements on Ataturk's staunch secularist principles. That softening paved the way for a lift of a ban on religious education and the opening of training courses for preachers.

The rise of the leftist movement in the 1970s resulted in the political and military establishments becoming increasingly influenced by the so-called "Turkish-Islamic synthesis," an ideology that imparted to the Turkish nation a quasi-messianic mission against socialism and communism. This ideology, which culminated after the 1980 military coup, materialized in the opening of new mosques and religious schools throughout the country.

By contrast, the Turkish military -- which wields considerable influence on domestic policies -- adopted a radically different attitude over the past decade, pushing for a further "secularization" of Islam to counter the growing influence of Islamic parties.

CERI's Vaner believes the decision announced last week, which would not have been possible without the blessing of secular authorities, can also be seen as part of a strategy "to involve women further in politics through religion."

Yet, Gole argues that, even though the new regulation may appear to be a bid to force changes on society, it still meets the expectations of many Turkish women: "In my opinion, this reform represents a kind of unexpected convergence between secular women, who have always wanted to be allowed into mosques and occasionally join men for prayers; educated Islamic women who have made similar demands; and traditional women who, too, have strong religious feelings. There is here a new, previously unknown, convergence between these three different figures of [Turkish] woman."

Turkey's Islamic parties have not reacted yet to the publication of the new religious code -- a delay that could be explained by a political agenda focused on internal divisions and the prospect of early parliamentary elections following Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's recent illnesses.

Gole believes the way Islamic circles respond to the proposed religious liberalization will show whether the convergence she anticipates between the different types of Turkish women could help consolidate society. Otherwise, she argues, the consequences might be dramatic for the country: "Today we witness a tendency, among secular women, to respond to the rise of political Islam by showing that they can go to mosques and behave in a 'secular' way. To some extent, the religious space is having its sacred character taken away. On the other hand, Islamic women have started appropriating secular spaces such as parliament or universities, also sparking public outcry. So we will see whether the religious reform [adopted last week] will bring those two milieus closer or whether, on the contrary, it will create a gap between them and spark a new social conflict."

Participants at the Istanbul seminar chose not to address the sensitive issue of head scarves, which they said will be debated later.

Controversy over veils and Islamic head scarves have stirred Turkish society for most of the past two decades and culminated three years ago when Merve Kavakci, a deputy for the moderate Islamic Virtue Party, was evicted from parliament after a failed attempt to take her oath wearing a head scarf. Last year (22 June), the Constitutional Court cited the outcry she had caused when it ruled to ban Virtue for alleged antisecular activities.

Last December, prosecutors charged Kavakci with insulting the state and the military by publicly stating that Turkish women who wear head scarves and female students who demand the right to adorn Islamic headgear in classrooms are persecuted.

In the late 1920s, Ataturk announced the abolition of veils and head scarves as he was proceeding with plans to emancipate Turkish women from the semi-slavery he argued they had been kept under by centuries of Ottoman rule. Yet no legal action was taken to enforce women's dress codes until the early 1980s when, to counter the rise of political Islam, the government imposed a ban on head scarves in universities and other public institutions.

In Gole's opinion, the Islamic head scarf should not be regarded as a symbol of Turkish women's submission to tradition. On the contrary, she writes in "Forbidden Modern," veiling conveys a political statement and should be regarded "as an active re-appropriation on the behalf of women of Islamic religiosity and way of life rather than its reproduction by established traditions."

The sociologist says she is anxious to see how Islamic women will react to the liberalization of the religious code. But she cautions against the temptation to politicize the Directorate for Religious Affairs' decision, saying it might not only provoke a rift within society but also put Turkey in an uncertain position toward its Muslim neighbors: "If this issue is examined only from a political viewpoint, Turkey might be, as has often happened in the past, perceived by Islamic militants -- within the country as well as among the rest of the world Islamic community -- as a country that goes against Islam and against its Muslim identity. But if one puts the emphasis on women, if the analysis focuses on the gender issue, then the convergence of demands made by Islamic, secular and other women will become obvious."

Gole concludes: "What we see in this reform is not an attempt to establish equality between sexes within religion. Rather, it is an attempt to redefine religious rites in the light of equality between the sexes."