Violence against women as ‘Jahiliyyah’

Violence against women as ‘Jahiliyyah’

Last week, the Turkish Family and Social Policies Minister Fatma Şahin made an interesting remark on domestic violence, a huge problem in the overwhelmingly patriarchal Turkish society. “Violence against women,” she said, “is a habit of the age of Jahiliyyah, and we will fight against it with values as well.”

The J-word Şahin mentioned literally means “ignorance” in Arabic, but it also has a specific meaning in the Islamic context: It refers to the pagan culture of the pre-Islamic Arabia, which is regarded by Muslims as a dark age that was replaced by the enlightenment of Islam. By referring to that historical memory, Ms. Şahin defined misogyny as an un-Islamic attitude that has lived within the Muslim societies - not because of Islam, but rather in spite of it.

By saying so, she was right, I believe. As I have also tried to explain before, in these pages or elsewhere, the violence and oppression many women face in predominantly Muslim societies is rooted not in the original sources of Islam, but instead in the pre-existing customs and habits of Middle East. It is therefore possible to oppose the seemingly “Islamic” persecution of women with an Islamic argument for emancipation, as various Islamic feminists have done — such as Fatima Mernissi in Morrocco, or Hidayet Şefkatli Tuksal in Turkey.

I also expect that two mutually opposing groups will strongly disagree with this point of view. The first one is the anti-Islamists who believe that Islam suppresses women, which makes it a horrible religion. The second group would be the Islamists who believe that Islam suppresses women, which is what in fact makes it a great religion. In other words, they agree on the nature of Islam, but they just have very different takes on it.

The real nature of Islam and its take on women is not the key issue here, though. We can have different opinions about it, and the academia can keep on enlightening us with further research. When it comes to policy, however, people’s perceptions on the real nature of Islam are more important than the reality itself.

And right there, Ms. Şahin is doing something right: Appealing to a broadly religious society through the religious values they uphold.

Of course, this is not a political line that would be approved by secular fundamentalists — those who believe that religion should be separated not only from the state, but also from politics and even civil society. They would rather argue that all religious arguments should be put aside, and that all political and cultural discussions should be carried out in secular terms.

However, this view is wrong for two reasons: It is selectively authoritarian and exclusive against religion. Why should religion be silent in the public square, while all other philosophies with their own dogmas can talk? (The dogma called “dialectical materialism,” for example, speaks loudly in the form of Marxism.)

Secondly, if a society happens to be religious, why not advance liberal causes through religious values? Haven’t we seen how effective that could be in the Christian case for the Civil Rights Movement in the United States for example, articulated by towering figures such as Martin Luther King.

Hence, I only hope that policy makers in the Muslim world such as Ms. Şahin bring more religious arguments for the emancipation of women and other liberal causes. In fact, that is exactly what this troubled region – which has lately been trapped in a vicious cycle between the anti-religious modernity and anti-modern religiosity - needs.