Divisions between feminists and Islamist women's rights activists in Turkey
The past two weeks have seen a number of events organized by different women’s rights groups in Turkey to mark March 8 International Women’s Day. One of the events I participated in was the three-day Muslim Women’s Summit, hosted by the World Islamic Forum and the Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies (TASAM).
Most participants shared an Islamic perspective, which was not surprising given the title of the summit. But secularist- feminist women’s rights activism also found some representation at the summit.
The focus of the summit was “mechanisms to empower women.” This common goal brought otherwise ideologically opposed women together.
Throughout the summit I found myself going back and forth between two thoughts. In Turkey’s deeply polarized political environment, this coalition of feminist and Islamist women was significant, I thought. But I also realized that this coalition was rather superficial; a genuine acceptance of each other is still a distant goal. In fact, even sufficient awareness of competing views is still not widespread, despite decades of attempts at coexistence and dialog. Feminist and Islamist women’s rights advocates remain polarized, despite some pragmatic collaboration on issues such as violence against women.
So what issues are so divisive that they prevent pro-women groups in Turkey from uniting in a more meaningful way?
The fundamental divide between feminist and Islamist women’s rights advocates stems from the “equality vs. equity” debate. Feminists argue that all existing differences between male and female roles, responsibilities and rights are a consequence of the male-dominated order (patriarchy) that oppresses women. Differences between men and women are not natural but learned or imposed. Justice can only be achieved if all gender differences are rejected.
However, Islamist women’s rights advocates - with the exception of a marginal group of women who consider themselves Islamic-feminists - typically reject equality and embrace “equity” instead. The concept of gender equity indicates that there are some “natural” differences between men and women. This leads to different roles, responsibilities and rights, but at the end of the day men and women are “equally valuable.” Even though gender differences exist, gender hierarchy should not exist. In other words, “equity” guarantees “justice without equality.”
Another issue that divides feminist and Islamist women’s groups relates to women’s role in the family. Islamic women’s rights advocates typically try to empower women from within the family institution. They expect women to get married and have children, satisfying their “natural” need to be mothers and to contribute to the reproduction of the Islamic community. But they acknowledge the need to make “home” a more women-friendly atmosphere, so they fight against domestic violence and other kinds of abuse, highlighting that unjust treatment of women hurts the family institution and violates the principles of “true” Islam.
Feminists, in contrast, argue that the “family” has often been a sugarcoated but oppressive institution for women. Many women are forced to give up their freedoms and bear an asymmetrical burden of reproducing the household as mothers and wives. Feminists reject the notions that women need to be married in order to have sexual freedom or to be parents, or that women must become mothers to feel “complete,” or that they must take more responsibility in child raising.
Finally, feminist and Islamist women’s groups pursue their goals through different methods. Feminists seek radical change, recognizing that it is a fight until gender equality is achieved. Islamist women, meanwhile, seek indirect and moderate change as they are bound by Islamic rules and over a thousand years of tradition. Since theoretically there is no room for reform in Islam, change is hard. But while introducing amendments to Islamic rules is not possible in theory, in practice there is room for “interpretation.” There are also debates in Islamic scholarship over what “true” Islam is. This allows some room to maneuver for women to re-interpret Islamic laws with a women-friendly eye, pursuing change from within.
In sum, as reactions to March 8 highlighted, our differences are many. Acceptance requires hard work. It may help to remember the golden rule of conflict resolution, which is to simply focus on acknowledging each other if a direct solution is unavailable. That is because when we feel genuinely understood our grievances tend to transform into a less threatening form, even if they may not entirely disappear.