Thursday, December 22, 2011

Women in Turkey: Part II

Part II

Naturally, these laws have had an adverse effect on the willingness of devout Muslim women to attend higher education institutions. Faced with the choice between practicing their religion as they see fit and pursuing their educational dreams, women have reacted in different ways, with some complying with the law in order to pursue their studies and others (in some cases, under familial or spousal pressure) giving up on such plans. Ultimately, we must ask if such regulations are justified for the sake of protecting the secular, democratic state and ensuring religious freedom for all, particularly for non-Muslim religious groups such as Christians, Jews, and Bahais, as well as agnostics and atheists? It would seem that the motivations for such laws can be understood when one takes into account the political tides in the region. Most recently, in Middle Eastern states that have experienced political upheaval in the past year (Egypt comes first to mind), we have seen Islamic fundamentalists, many of whom (e.g. the Salafis in Egypt) hold deeply illiberal views regarding women and religious minorities, greatly amplify their political influence in the region.

The most hard-core adherents of Kemalism in Turkey fear, with some justification, that such movements could gain a considerable number of adherents in Turkey, which would undermine the secular state. Thus, following this logic, permitting hijab in higher education institutions and generally loosening limits on manifestations of religion might open the floodgates and invite bolder and more radical challenges to the Kemalist state. The following essentially sums up the prevailing attitudes of many secular-minded Turks:

"Western-oriented turks fear that their country's image is suffering...These profoundly worldly Turks, who used to be the nation's elite, feel threatened by the creeeping Islamization of society. Specifically, they point to the fact that, under the AKP, the religious sectors of society have been reintroduced into the state bureaucracy. Under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, adherence to laws meant to protect secularism has been lax, complains Ural Akbulut, rector of the Technical University in Ankara. One already sees women with headscarves at some universities, he points out. 'On my campus, no one is permitted to show up in a religious uniform,' Akbulut emphasizes. 'If we lift the ban on headscarves, then they would come tomorrow in a chador and the next day in a burka. In the end they would be beating up girls who wear modern dress. We have seen in Iran how fast it can happen.'"

While most of us can sympathize with these sentiments, they seem to be very much overblown. While Turkey might be moving in a more religious direction under the AKP, it is a huge exaggeration to think that it will move in the direction of Saudi Arabia and Iran (both of which severely restrict opportunities for women). Most likely, devout Muslim women in Turkey will simply win rights that women in many other states already enjoy, such as the freedom to wear hijab in government institutions, including higher education institutions, and the freedom to express their religion openly in other ways. We can also expect religion to play a more prominent role in Turkish life with greater emphasis on conservative, religious values and perhaps greater pressure on women to stick to "traditional family roles."

This does not seem to be much different from what is advocated by Christian Democratic Parties in Europe and conservative groups in the United States. This will understandably arouse indignation from women's rights advocates who fear the further erosion in rights and opportunities for women. While such fears should, again, be carefully weighed, they seem to be without much foundation. One should consider the enormous socioeconomic progress Turkey has made in recent decades, rising living standards and democratization of the political system, which has brought the country stability and prosperity which is well beyond what exists in neighboring Middle Eastern states. Based on such facts, it looks as if Turkey is on an irreversible path towards even greater political freedom and socioeconomic prosperity. Relaxing strict regulations pertaining to hijab and other expressions of religious faith are signs of the growing maturation of the democratic state.

Seen in this light, such developments should be welcomed rather than feared.

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