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Turkey: Religious Officials Criticized For Stance On Women

Women at a secularist rally in Turkey (AFP) "Women have to be more careful, since they possess stimulants," and they "have to be covered properly so as not to show their ornaments and figures to strangers."

Those are two of the controversial "dos" and "don'ts" given to Turkish women in the "Sexual Life" article that appeared last week on the website of Turkey's Directorate on Religious Affairs, the Diyanet.

It added that if women have to communicate to the opposite sex they "should speak in a manner that will not arouse suspicion in one's heart and in such seriousness and dignity that they will not let the opposite party misunderstand them."

Such proclamations about Muslim women and their behavior are part of a general catechism about Islam and society that the Diyanet publishes regularly.

But the Diyanet and its "Sexual Life" article have come under fierce criticism from Turkish secularists and feminist groups -- particularly as it equates flirting and dating to adultery and puts the responsibility for such things entirely on women.

The article also raised the ire of many Turks by warning that men and women not married to each other should not be seen together; discouraging women from working in mixed-gender workplaces; and claiming that it is "immoral" behavior for women to wear perfume outside the home.

Yusuf Kanli, a columnist with the pro-secular "Turkish Daily News," says the Diyanet's stance on women s similar to the views of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan: "Putting on perfume is a sin. Flirting is an indecent attitude. A man and a woman's going out together or walking in the street together is a sin."

The Diyanet was set up in 1924 and is a powerful institution that controls some 80,000 Turkish mosques -- appointing imams and drafting Friday Prayer speeches in a country where the constitution proclaims a separation between the state and religion.

Kanli tells RFE/RL that he finds it "incredible" that the state religious body issues a statement that "downgrades women and treats them as second-class citizens." He wonders how someone can "say something as ridiculous as this after 85 years" of secularism.

Kizbes Aydin, the head of the women's cultural group Cigle Evka2, has gone further, saying that the Diyanet's recommendation to separate men and women will incite violence against women.

Aydin was quoted as saying that religious authorities will "justify the implementation of violence [by a man against a woman] with excuses such as 'she was wearing perfume,' or 'she was dressed provocatively.'"

On the use of perfume, the Diyanet's article said, "Our Prophet Muhammad did not think well of women who wore perfume and fragrances outside their homes and went on strolls, and saw this as immoral behavior."

Experts on Islam and the Hadith -- which is a collection of reports on the sayings and deeds ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad -- question that statement.

Nahde Bozkurt, a professor of the divinity faculty at Ankara University, tells RFE/RL that wearing perfume is essential for Muslims. "As a modern woman, I use perfume in order [not] to smell bad because to smell good is very important in Islam," she says.

There is also a hadith by Imam al-Termezi that says anointing oneself with perfume is one of the traditions Muslims should follow.

Bozkurt says that even if it is true that the Prophet Muhammad prohibited women to wear perfume outside their homes, "we should take into account the circumstances and cultural, sociopolitical conditions of the seventh century when the Prophet Muhammad said or did certain things."

Creeping Islamization?

Kanli of the "Turkish Daily News" says the Diyanet's article on women is the most recent sign of the government's attempts to strengthen the role of Islam in Turkish society.

Turkey has seen something of a revival of Islam in recent years. The trend has become particularly clear since the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development (AK) party came to power in 2002.

The AK party has been criticized by secularist forces in Turkey that accuse the ruling elite of having a hidden Islamist agenda.

Earlier this year, state prosecutors asked Turkey's Constitutional Court to ban AK for undermining the strict separation of religion and politics decreed in the country's constitution in the 1920s.

The indictment against the party is based on the constitutional amendment initiated by AK and added earlier this year that allows students to wear head scarves while attending university. Prosecutors asked the court to bar Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul, and dozens of other AK members from political activity.

On May 30, the case took a step forward when the prosecutor replied to the AK party's initial defense. A decision on the case is expected in a few months.

The secularist opposition Republican People's Party filed a separate case against the head-scarf amendment. The Constitutional Court is due to hear that complaint this week.

Referring to the wives of both Erdogan and Gul wearing head scarves, Kanli claims the "Islamization" of society as supported by the Turkish heads of state threatens the pillars of secularism and the republic itself.

"But, of course, if you have the first lady dressing up in an Islamic style -- [which is] incompatible with modernity -- if you have the prime minister's wife [dressed] in the same fashion, and all ministers' wives the same way, and if covering the head of a woman is a requirement for people to get appointed to senior government positions, or bureaucratic positions, we have a problem," he says.

"And that's what we have in Turkey. It's not about the turban at universities. It is a systematic move to Islamicize the state administration and a society in Turkey."

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