The modern Islamic Woman

Many women in Turkey want to use Islam to free themselves from traditional life-patterns. They think that Islam supports women getting an education, working and being politically active, at the same time as it emphasises women’s central role in the Muslim family.

One side of the growth of the Islamic movement during the eighties and nineties in Turkey has been the social and political mobilisation of a large number of conservative women who were not earlier active in the public arena.

The Tesettür is a key symbol of the Islamic Movement in Turkey. Photo:

The conservative Islamic parties in Turkey have network-building as one of their strengths. They are present in the local communities and organise existing neighbourhood networks. Religion gives the organising efforts strength and makes it easy for women to join. Women’s political activity has been important in the process of bringing the different Islamist political parties to power. In 2002 The Islamic Justice and Development Party won the elections.

American Jenny White has done ethnographic research in Turkey in the period 1994-2002, primarily on Islam activists in a working class neighbourhood in Istanbul. She thinks that the Islamist movement has given women new possibilities; the possibility of getting an education or work training, to work outside the home and to participate in political activity. Women participate in activities which previously were male-dominated. Jenny White also says that working for a party was important for women who did not have the possibility to attend university. The political work meant a kind of education, a legitimate profession, an identity and a way of increasing one’s personal network.

Back to the home

Jenny White thinks that the Islamist movement’s expectations toward women represent a paradox since it also claims that women’s primary tasks are at home with the family. And there are large class differences concerning women’s freedom of choice when they marry or get their first child.

When Islamist ideology and activism opened doors for women, they turned out to be rotating doors for women from the lower classes, White says. Poorer women have the possibility of being modern Islam women as students, workers or activists until they marry or have their first child. At that point they are no longer able to maintain a life as activist or employed. Due to the lack of economic resources they have to retire to security, but also to isolation, in the patriarchal family household. There the ruling virtues are virginity, honour, obedience and motherhood.

A common theme in Islamist literature now is the spot Islamist women come in when they marry and lose the voice they had as activists.

The veil’s many meanings

Women’s participation in politics has started a discussion about “the new Islam woman”. She is portrayed as being educated, engaged in society and politics, and she challenges the secular elite by representing an alternative modern elite image and identity. The central symbol for the modern Islamic woman is a certain kind of veil: Tesettür.

The symbolism of the Tesettür veil is contradictory. It is a sign of equality among Islamists and hides class differences. It signals opposition toward the secular authorities. It signals high morals. It symbolises on the one side ideas about an Islamic modernity where women are educated, at work and politically active. On the other side the veil refers to values such as patriarchal hierarchy, gender segregation and women’s domestic role. Still other times the veil is simply a fashion garment that implies that the bearer is urban in upward social mobility.

Islamists differentiate between the modern tesettür-scarf and the more traditional veiled covering. One of White’s informants told her that her mother covered herself in the traditional manner, but that her own use of the veil is more conscious and has a more definite aim than the traditional use. Veil and covering because is is required by religion or patriarchal authority is not the same as conscious Islamist practice. White claims that the tesettür veil has roots in the Ottoman elite’s fashion, not in the traditional covering practised by most people.

Through the nineties the definition of the modern Islam woman was freed from the ideology and transformed by a commercial market forming an Islamic elite lifestyle which was out of reach for poorer female activists. As a commercial fashion accessory the tesettür is associated with an urban life and a modern Islamic active woman’s life. There are constantly changing patterns and colours, special fashion shows and shops. Women from the working class can just barely keep up by washing and ironing their one or two veils.

As a uniform and symbol of social mobility the Tesettür veil unites people across class and political motivation. As a fashion accessory it differentiates between those who can afford to follow the latest trend and buy quality material and those who can not afford to.

The veil as protection

When women cover their head and body in the Muslim manner it becomes possible for them to take the step over the home’s threshold and out into public life with education, work and political activism. Islamic funds gave student grants and gender-segregated student dormitories so that young women from conservative, poor families could partake in higher education. The veil established a kind of mobile honour-zone within which women could participate along with male students and teachers without fearing for their reputation.

Veiled women said that they could move freely through town without the fear of being pestered, while women who were dressed in Western clothes complained that they were meddled with and molested by men on busses and on the street.

Contrasts between women and men

White’s opinion is that feminists and female activists represent a separate political stream in the Islamist movement of the nineties. They used the Koran to explain and justify modern, universal and even feminist ideas about the role of women, which to a large degree challenged the norms of the community. But White thinks that these women’s politics were not necessarily in harmony with the Islamist parties’ ideals about and politics for women.

Even though women’s participation in the Islamist movement and in the work of the parties was extensive and important, almost no women are represented in the leadership of the parties. And the parties’ women’s groups and committees often lack formal status.

White found that women and men attach importance to different sides of the Islamist movement. She interviewed local activists in the Islamist Welfare Party. She asked women about ideals and political goals, and they told of a greater freedom of action and a breach with traditional expectations in the community. The women wanted to use work in the Party to improve women’s position, especially through education and work outside the home. For women the Islamist movement promises more democracy and a new political arena. The women said: “I have found myself; now I want a position in the Party.”

When White went into the neighbouring office to interview male activists she heard about other goals and ideals. Here were ideals about traditional women’s roles, an increase in men’s power over women and polygamy.

Male activists could often differentiate between unmarried women: the ones who were educated and who should work, and uneducated women who would be better off at home than in a job where they would be discriminated and pestered. But the men were against the idea of women working outside the home after getting married. The education of women was still a good idea since it would make them better mothers.

The conflicting ideas of the Islamic movement also live in the women themselves. White has often met women activists who keep up two sets of ideas about women at the same time; that they promote the role of women in the home at the same time as they go to university, edit periodicals and run election campaigns.

Jenny B. White

Jenny B. White is associate professor of Anthropology at the Boston University, USA. She has written the books Islamist Mobilization in Turkey (2002) and Money Makes Us Relatives: Women's Labor in Urban Turkey (1994), as well as a number of articles on Islamic politics, women and Islam, family life, women’s work and Turks in Germany. She took part in the conference Gender, Change and Religion at the University in Bergen 27-29.11.03. This article builds on her lecture there.

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