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Headscarf ban and Islamist feminists

Thursday 2 December 2010, by Orhan Kemal Cengiz

There is certainly quite a weird paradox in the whole headscarf discussion. So-called “modern Turks” fight against the idea of women covering themselves, in the name of emancipating them, but the ban on the headscarf serves nothing but the maintenance of the patriarchal culture in Turkey.

The male-dominant, patriarchal culture in Turkey dictates that women should stay at home, just look after the kids and stay away from social contact where they would interact with men. Does the very ban on the headscarf not serve exactly the same purpose? As a result of the ban on the headscarf, covered women are prevented from getting an education, being employed, representing their constituency in Parliament, and even getting into public buildings.

If you consider that 60 percent of women cover their heads in this country, you can begin to understand the social and cultural impact of the headscarf ban in Turkey. I believe the headscarf ban, with all its practical implications, is a serious breach of human rights of women and should be lifted unconditionally wherever it is imposed.

Advocates of the headscarf ban put forward many arguments, but if you look at the bottom line, you see this: They believe the only way for women to be “modernized” is to take their veils off their heads. A woman with a headscarf cannot be a modern person, cannot be an independent individual, according to proponents of the ban.

This understanding of “modernization” is undoubtedly an orientalist one, and is just a reflection of the social engineering that has been in operation since the beginning of the Turkish Republic. This understanding of “modernization” simply ignores real social dynamics and has no potential to create real change.

Social dynamics cannot be changed through outside pressure; they can only be changed from within. Social dynamics in conservative and religious societies can only be influenced and changed with the forces operating within these societies themselves. If we can overcome this nonsensical ban, I believe the patriarchal discourse in conservative segments of Turkish society will find themselves struggling with the countervailing discourse raised by “Islamist feminists.”

Islamist feminism

Islamist feminism is not an oxymoron and refers to women feminists who defend women’s rights from within the Islamic discourse. One of the proponents of this movement in the West, Asra Q. Nomani, an Indian-American journalist and author, put what they advocate as follows: “To many, we are the bad girls of Islam. But we are not anti-Shariah [Islamic law] or anti-Islam. We use the fundamentals of Islamic thinking — the Quran, the Sunnah, or traditions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, and ijtihad, or independent reasoning — to challenge the ways in which Islam has been distorted by Shariah rulings issued by ultraconservative men.”

In the same vein, one of the well-known Turkish “Islamist feminist,” Ms. Hidayet Tuksal, says that “religion has been interpreted differently by different people throughout history, leading to male-dominated interpretations.” They basically try to change these interpretations. Today in Turkey we have many covered women who wholeheartedly defend women’s rights and fight against the patriarchal culture. If the headscarf ban is lifted, I believe these brave women will start to engage in a much fiercer war with male domination in their own circles.

There are few feminist movements in Turkey in which covered and uncovered women come together to fight for gender equality and against patriarchal values. The Ankara Women’s Platform is one of them and I was really delighted to read their statement denouncing “control over women’s bodies, whether in the name of modernity, secularism, the republic, religion, tradition, custom, morality, honor or freedom.” That’s it. We should all fight against control over women’s bodies, whatever the justification, whether secular or religious.

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Source : 26 November 2010, Friday, TZ

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