An Islamic Feminist Seeks Balance

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Special to The Times

She has been called a “bad Muslim” for sitting with her legs crossed during a televised debate on Islam.

She has been derided by nonobservant women in this officially secular, but predominantly Muslim, country for covering her hair with a scarf.

Drawing fire from men and women alike, Hidayet Sefkatli Tuksal is at the forefront of Turkey’s unique brand of Islamic feminism.


Disillusionment over male professors’ and colleagues’ misogyny prompted Tuksal, a fiercely devout Muslim scholar, to investigate what Islam really says about women.

Her findings, she said, revealed that, contrary to what “so many men would have us believe,” the faith does not assign women second-class status.

Sporting a loosely wound head scarf that reveals strands of brown hair, Tuksal, 41, is among an increasingly vocal group of Islamic feminists who seek to liberate their religion from male hegemony.

Yet Tuksal and her friends are also fighting for the right to cover their heads in keeping with their view of Islam.

To Muslim women elsewhere who are struggling to overcome curbs imposed in the name of Islam, these may seem like contradictory goals. But in Turkey they interlock, Tuksal said during a recent interview. “They are separate fronts in the same war -- the war for gender equality,” she said.

The emergence of Islamic feminism in Turkey coincided with the rise of political Islam in the late 1980s.


The Welfare Party, an overtly Islamic group that came to power in 1996, drew heavily on its female members to mobilize support in conservative urban neighborhoods. For thousands of women long confined to their homes, the experience was the beginning of a political awareness that was to propel them toward a more feminist agenda.

Jenny B. White, a social anthropologist at Boston University, said that awakening triggered the first rumblings of dissatisfaction.

“There were almost no women in the party administration, and this clearly irked some of the women activists,” she said. Their grievances were overshadowed by mounting pressure from Turkey’s powerful military, which forced Welfare out of power after a turbulent year in office on the dubious charge that it was seeking to introduce religious rule.

At the same time, bans on the Islamic-style head scarf at all private and state-run universities and schools began to be rigidly enforced. Alleging discrimination, female activists established associations to fight the ban, among them Tuksal’s Capital Platform.

Tuksal and her colleagues began roaming rural backwaters urging women to seek education and demand their rights. They campaigned with gay pacifists against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Islamist hard-liners labeled the women troublemakers.

But even as critics attacked these Muslim feminists, a new breed of Islamic leaders -- such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister -- began to distance itself from militant rhetoric. Fearing renewed confrontation with the military, the new leaders dropped the head scarf issue from their agenda and began recruiting uncovered female professionals to project a moderate face.


Many of their covered disciples screamed treason. But others, emboldened by the addition of Western-garbed women to their ranks, traded in their ankle-length overcoats for stylish tunics and pants, and their drab head scarves for lively chiffon prints.

Islamist men were not the only adversaries. “Secular women have long mocked and distrusted us because we cover our head,” Tuksal said. The hostility was mutual: The secularists’ stance on abortion and sexual freedom was counter to the beliefs of pious women, leading many to reject the feminist label altogether.

For all their differences, there are encouraging signs that secular and pious women -- and men -- are finding common ground. According to the latest polls, more than 70% of Turks oppose the head scarf ban at universities. And more than 80% of the women polled objected to men taking on a second wife, allowed under Islam but banned by Turkish law.

This year, the Capital Platform teamed up with Flying Broom, a secular feminist group, and the Religious Affairs Directorate, a state-run agency that employs and vets all Islamic preachers in Turkey. Together, they composed a sermon condemning “honor killings” -- the slaying of women by male relatives for allegedly besmirching the family name. The sermon was delivered in thousands of mosques across Turkey.

The nation’s drive to become the European Union’s first Muslim-majority member has played a big role in these efforts, said Nimet Cubukcu, one of 13 female lawmakers elected on Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party ticket two years ago.

The government has rammed through a raft of reforms in an effort to persuade EU leaders to start accession negotiations. The changes include harsher penalties for so-called honor crimes, marital rape and virginity tests imposed by teachers, relatives and spouses. The laws were endorsed by both secular and Islamic women activists.


But their burgeoning alliance hit turbulence in September, when Erdogan sought to criminalize adultery as part of the reform package. Islamic women remained largely silent. Secular feminists, who were left to fight the measure alone, felt betrayed. In the end, EU arm-twisting forced Erdogan to back down.

Tuksal says she and her Platform colleagues were opposed to the measure, but that to have spoken up against the bill “would have sounded like we believed in adultery.”

“Striking a reasonable balance between progress and tradition,” she added, “is the greatest challenge of all.”