- Islamist Women and Feminist Concerns in Contemporary TurkeyProspects for Women’s Rights and Solidarity
“Until the lions claim their own history, the hunter stories will always praise the hunters.”1 This is the African proverb that the headscarved Islamist lawyer Sibel Eraslan used to preface an article she contributed to a secular feminist collection of essays. Eraslan was one of the most important names behind the success of the Islamist Refah (Welfare) Party in Istanbul, in the 1994 municipal elections.2 As a religious woman writing her own story, she thus underlined the significance of what she was doing, namely, rewriting women’s history from the perspective of headscarved women and seeking legitimacy in the process. She had been a prominent leader, a “lion” in this struggle, and she was now ready to write the “lion’s history.” Her essay was part of an important collection in which two secular feminist editors traced feminism in Turkey in the 1990s. Sibel Eraslan was influenced by and in dialogue with these feminists, as her story attested. Lions and hunters had some shared histories.
Eraslan’s struggle was part of a larger sociopolitical movement to shape a more religious, conservative Turkey within the parameters of a secular republic. In 2002 the Islamically rooted Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (akp, Justice and Development Party), a liberal offshoot of Refah, came to power through regular elections with the promise of further democratizing the country. akp remained in power through the 2007 and 2011 elections. After its third term in power the party’s rule devolved into majoritarian authoritarianism, restricting civil liberties, undermining separation of powers in the country, and polarizing the citizenry. In its effort to cultivate a pious generation, the government began to contest women’s rights, through both its discourse and its policies. Under changing circumstances where power was transferred from secular groups to an Islamically rooted one, the government helped pro-government newspapers to emerge where Islamist women began writing as columnists.
In this article I focus on Islamist women such as Sibel Eraslan who now [End Page 125] write opinion columns in daily Islamist newspapers. By the phrase Islamist women I refer to a heterogeneous group who prioritize shaping their lives according to Islamic dictates and are vocal on this choice.3 In the Turkish context, Islamist women have primarily sought the right to cover their heads in universities and public institutions since the 1980s. They were recognized as part of the Islamist opposition fighting to expand religious rights. Now they are in positions of power as columnists in pro-government dailies, under an increasingly authoritarian conservative government. As columnists who address a conservative community, they are visible and publicly prominent, engaging in public debate and making claims about the daily agenda of the country. What do they think about women’s problems besides the headscarf issue? Only a few of these women define themselves as feminist. How do they relate to feminist concerns? How do they relate to the party in government, which at times threatens women’s rights? Do they approve of, accommodate, or criticize its attitudes toward secular women’s rights?
Bhikhu Parek argues that all cultural groups are internally plural rather than monolithic and that this heterogeneity helps the internal transformation of these groups. “Each [culture] carries bits of the other within itself and is rarely sui generis. This does not mean that it has no powers of self-determination and inner impulses but rather that it is porous and subject to external influences which it interprets and assimilates in its own autonomous way,” Parek writes.4 In this article I explore the “external influences” on Islamist women who are part of the larger Islamist community in Turkey and examine how far their columnists share feminist concerns that have been articulated by secular women since the early 1980s in Turkey. In a country where about 70 percent of women cover their heads, Islamist women exposed to feminist goals are potentially an important group to expand women’s opportunities, if not to precipitate an internal transformation in the Islamist community.5 Their opinion leaders thus deserve to be studied.
Much has been written...