Religion and public life; Each has a role in Turkey, right?

The Washington Times



“Modernization in Turkey in terms of women has been limited strictly to dress code – and that is nothing but body politics,” said Edibe Sozen, vice chairman of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP – the ruling Islamist party in Turkey. “I argue that that modernization is narrow-minded, limited only to the issue of clothing. And I support deconstruction of such modernization,” she said.
Turkey faces a critical national election in less than two weeks, and its people will decide whether to retain the country’s secular democracy. Mainly the debate revolves around whether it violates the principles of the republic to allow women to wear Islamist-style headscarves in government offices and public schools.
I met with Miss Sozen at a coffee shop in Uskudar, where she has based her campaign for parliament. She has been involved with the AKP only seven months, yet she is running to represent the same district as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – and she is expected to win. She is a longtime academic with close ties to the Fethullah Gulen religious movement.
Miss Sozen arrived wearing a long denim skirt and a long-sleeved blue blouse. Her hair was uncovered and she was wearing eyeglasses. “If we share this land together, we cannot discriminate against women with headscarves at government offices and schools,” she said. “I believe this discrimination is artificial and attempted to create a forged society.” She asserts that Turkish secularists cannot tolerate people who look different. “Their stand is based on an ideology, whereas people who support the right to headscarves have no ideological attachment,” she claimed. (Evidently, she did not hear anything about “political Islam.”)
Miss Sozen also argues that secularists in Turkey stand for the status quo and that her party’s conservatives stand for change. And that is the question: What does Miss Sozen – and for that matter, the AKP – mean by “change”? How do they define “progress”? Is it possible to see the increasing number of veiled women in Turkey as a symbol of modernization? Or is it a symbol for people who want to return to tradition and away from modernity?
Technically, most of Miss Sozen’s arguments are correct. It is true that “modernization” in Turkey has focused primarily on clothing, rather than on ensuring equal rights for men and women and raising women’s standard of living. Or, how one can explain why Turkey ranks 105th in the World Economic Forum’s 2006 Global Gender Gap Index, which assesses 115 countries. Its civil code, however, gives Turkish women almost the same rights as European women. What’s more, Turkish women are granted the right to vote and to be elected before many European nations. But in practice the mindset of society – regardless of party affiliation – is the real obstacle to equality.
What needs to happen is a change in approach – a change in how men in power see the world. Creating a contemporary society is no easy task, and passing laws about dress codes is not enough.
In their arguments about headscarves, AKP leaders point to the United States as an example of people with the liberty to dress as they want. But Muslim populations do not see individual rights the same as the Western world; they are more focused on community – and subordination to community is easily abused.
Women are subject to tremendous pressure on issues of honor and dignity – and their independence, individuality and security is very much open to question. Yet time and again people revert to the “community rules,” because they would not know how to survive otherwise. And many Turkish women choose head cover just to make life a little easy. Because women know what that head cover works for, they don’t take a stand against each other.
It’s one thing for the Western world and the Muslim world to learn from one another. But drawing a parallel between the Western world and the Muslim world is erroneous. Americans know no fear of their country becoming a theocratic state; yet in virtually any Muslim country, it is possible.
Secularists protest the European Union’s perception of Turkey, yet they have failed utterly in making the case for what they can and will do for Turkey. They have failed to create the social projects and goodwill that would be a bulwark against losing power. And both secularists and Islamists have been willing to use women politically without making any real progress in the quality of their lives. Turkish women who wear the hijab face the same problems educationally and economically as those who dress in Western-style clothes.
The issue, as always, is much larger than one of dress code. The argument over headscarves, while real, is also symbolic – and we risk losing sight of what is at stake: the fundamental question of what the people of Turkey want to see their country become. It is a question of what Turkey can and should be in the 21st century and beyond. And neither the Islamists nor the secularists has articulated the role that each would play in the Turkish society of the future, or how each could bring to the government and the people a fresh idea of religion and its role in public life.
Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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