Muslim Lite: Women, Islam and the Turkish Way

Istanbul, Turkey - "They are trying to make Istanbul into Teheran," an old man tells me on the street. This beautiful city that hinges Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus lives its private contradictions in public space. At the bus stop, a boy kisses the neck of his mini-skirted girlfriend, while next to them stand two young women whose every strand of hair is secreted away inside colorful headscarves. At the airport, women in décolleté slink on the cat walk advertising the local fashion industry on a big overhead screen while pious Turkish mothers in coats that drop to their toes hustle their children toward the turnstiles. In Turkey, secular nationalism and Islam fight their fiercest battles over and upon women's bodies.

I have come here with my seminar from New York University-Abu Dhabi to see and listen to the "Turkish way." In the Muslim world, there are signal events that everybody watches as signposts of possibility -- the Algerian revolution of 1959, the Six Day War in 1967, the Iranian revolution in 1979, the Palestinian intifada in 1987, and then here in Turkey the repeated election of an Islamic party to govern a democratic republic in 2002, 2007 and 2011. For most, particularly in places like Tunis or Cairo where the "Arab Spring" rocked regimes in 2011 followed by the election of Muslim parties, the Turkish case is scrutinized for how political Islam might live by the rules of liberal democracy. We have come instead to learn from the Turks about what this resurgent political Islam means for women. The two are related.

We have arrived on the anniversary of the death of Kemal Ataturk in 1938, the man who in 1923 carved the Turkish republic out of the Islamic Ottoman empire, abandoning Arabic, initially even in the call to prayer, forcing the Muslim brotherhoods underground, forbidding religious instruction in the schools. The Turkish republicans blamed Islam for the weakness of its state, for the Ottomans' inability to stand up to the armed might and wealth of the West.

Women's subordination and segregation were for them emblems of Islam's backwardness.

It was the kind, not the fact, of male power the Turkish nationalists wanted to change. The Turkish nationalists saw the Ottomans through Western eyes as too enslaved to pleasure, made passive and feminized by the way they were able to control women. The new Civil Code abolished polygamy and the right of husbands to unilateral divorce. In 1934, the Turkish Republic proclaimed its modernity by granting women the right to vote on the one hand and by forbidding their veiling on the other. In Ankara, the country's new capital positioned far from Islamic Ottoman Istanbul, cops waiting at the train station turned back traditionally dressed village women deemed too pious for the new sacred center of the secular republic. The price for women entering the public sphere was to leave their religiously inspired modesty at the city's gates.

Over the decades this drum-beat never stopped. Indeed it intensified. For the last three decades, Turkish women wearing the headscarf were forbidden from attending schools and universities, from working in government offices, from getting a passport with their heads covered. But just now, with 70 percent of Turkish women in scarves and a majority Islamic party firmly in control, the state has given way on schools and universities, even if it is not yet completely official.

The secular Turks, the inheritors of Kemal Ataturk's republican nationalism, are nervous. Mouth to mouth they broadcast a continuous stream of little stories, of the new pious political class not being able to even look at their loose-haired female employees, of faculty posts at state universities not being funded by the Ministry of Education because of continued opposition by some academic departments -- notably education -- to the admission of headscarved women, of proposed internet censorship of those who search for prohibited sexual material, of critical journalists and students being put away in prison. A religious man hit a young athletic woman stretching her legs in a public bus, we are told by an astounded secular woman. "And nobody did anything!" Can we believe that?

You can also see the secular republican's anxiety in the defiant displays of their loyalty. Pictures of Ataturk are showing up in people's homes and shops, Ates Altinordu, a professor at Sibanci University tells us. They wear pins with his likeness. Men at the gym work out with Ataturk's distinctive signature tattooed on their bodies.

Turkey's Muslim party, The Justice and Development Party, or Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, has just scored its largest electoral victory ever, winning half of all the votes. There is nothing Islamic in its name, but it likes to be known as the AK Party, meaning "white" or "clean" in Turkish. You can tell where people stand by whether they spell out the letters or say the word.

Dirty easily morphs into impure. Everybody is still talking about how Prime Minister Erdogan, who began his march to power with his election as Istanbul's service-oriented mayor in 1994, recently "cleaned" up the city in what came to be known as "the table operation." This is the man who wants to build a mosque right in Taksim, the city's secular central square in which a statue of Ataturk stands. Last August as Ramadan approached, when Muslims are prohibited during daylight hours from eating or drinking, even water, Erdogan had the municipality send its men up and down sidewalks at Istanbul's center picking up restaurant tables and chairs and throwing them into trucks, sometimes even when people were sitting at them, drinking their raki, the licorice-tasting alcohol made milky by adding water and then ice. The local eateries counted on those tables; thousands of waiters lost their jobs.

The government's supporters all tell us it was about congestion and noise, that alleyways were turning into open bars, that the Prime Minister's cars couldn't even get through because the bar and restaurant tables had forced the pedestrians into the streets. Residents complained. The secular denizens with whom we talked on the inside of these same eateries in the central Beyoglu neighborhood tell other stories. One says that some Turkish men rose from their seats, glasses in hand, and toasted to the Prime Minister's headscarfed wife's health, a double affront to an abstemious Muslim husband. A young woman, raki glass in hand, claims that their sovereign leader just can't stand the public pleasure of young people like her. Another tells us that when Erdogan's entourage took a wrong turn and got stuck in the center of the gentrified district, he was asked: "What are you doing here? You don't belong here." His response made it clear: It was they who did not belong.

While the hard-drinking, freedom-loving, secular Istanbulu fear what they see as a stealth move to create a puritanical Islamic state, the truth is that democracy came to Turkey because of these same religious political forces. Since 1960, Turkey has suffered five actual or attempted military coups, the last three against the increasingly popular Islamic parties. In 1997, in the so-called "soft coup" the military forced the Islamist Refah party, newly elected and part of the coalition government, to resign. Erdogan, Istanbul's popular mayor, was thrown into prison for "inciting religious hatred" and calling for the "overthrow of the government" because he read a poem:

The mosques are our barracks

The domes our helmets

The minarets our bayonets

And the faithful our soldiers.

The Turkish military has long served as a shadow government outside parliamentary control, stepping in as a guarantor of the state's secularity. In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution in 1979, keeping signs of Islamic piety out of the public sphere seemed particularly urgent. The Shah had modeled his regime on that of Ataturk; now Ataturk's heirs feared their neighbor's fate. Islamism was on the rise. Turkish university students were reading Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual light of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who provided a theological warrant for Muslims to rebel against secular, and hence apostate, Muslim rulers, and Ali Shariati, the revolutionary Iranian Islamist thinker who denounced the Western model of sexual emancipation for women and promoted wearing of the hijab. Islam was political, transnational and dangerous. One had to be on guard. Force was required to defend the state against the political deployment of God. It was not enough that Turkish imams were forbidden from disparaging the state. Political Islam came to Turkey through its cities. Istanbul's population has ballooned 13 times since 1950, then a forested, hilly metropole of 1 million. Millions of traditional, pious families from the villages and towns of the Anatolian heartIand poured in, building up its outer suburbs. By the 1980s, the daughters of traditional mothers who wore headscarves because they had always done so in their patriarchal world were entering the city's secondary schools and universities. As elsewhere in the Muslim world, many of these young people were looking for the way, for the "pure" Islam that would redeem their honor and their value in a secularizing state that disparaged them. They had grown up with people looking down on their newcomer parents as irtijah, "backward" or "reactionary," as coarse and uncultivated. It was these young women who started showing up at school wearing headscarves. It offered them a way to move in the anonymous metropole jostling with strange men. Their chic, silk headscarves marked them as women who, unlike their mothers, had chosen their modesty. They were modern and on the way up. They refused the traditional binaries of the Republican state: Religious girls could be modern, too. Turkey's military junta would have none of it. "[I]t is known," the Council of State declared in 1984, "that some of our daughters and women...wear headscarves just to oppose the principles of the secular Republic, showing that they adopt the idea of a religious state. For those people, the headscarf is no longer an innocent habit, but a symbol of a world view that opposes women's liberty and the fundamental principles of our Republic." After the coup d'etat in 1980 women who insisted on wearing the headscarf were expelled from school or not admitted. Headscarves were collected at the school gates; men lost jobs and promotions because of the way their wives dressed at home. In 1999, Merve Kavakci, newly elected member of parliament, was ejected from the chambers when she sought to take her oath of office wearing a headscarf to cries of "terrorist" and "bad mother." Denounced by the country's president as "an agent provocateur," she was subsequently stripped of her citizenship for concealing her dual American-Turkish citizenship. The chief prosecutor compared her Islamist party to a "vampire sucking only on blood." In 2000, Nuray Bezirgan, a Turkish female student, wore a headscarf at her college final exams. A Turkish court sentenced her to six months in jail for "obstructing the education of others."

Many pious Muslim women never got their education. The current President's wife was denied admission for her Masters degree because she wore a headscarf. Those that did matriculate, explains Fatih Ceran, an editor and writer at Zaman, speaking of the predominantly religious female employees at the country's preeminent conservative paper, are "ashamed of what they had to do to get their education to be able to work at Zaman."

"Families who would not send their daughters to school in another city," he explains to us, sent their daughters to Europe and beyond. Prime Minister Erdogan's daughters went to America for college, one to UC Berkeley.

Istanbul's universities are today filled with girls wearing headscarves. This public mark of piety very much divides their social world. Although each side accepts the other, it doesn't feel accepted by them. "I don't have prejudice towards them," a young male student wearing blue jeans we met on Istiklal, the main walking street, chuckled. "I just feel like if I look at them, they'll think I'm a pervert." And reciprocally, a young woman wearing an elegant chocolate-colored scarf, who tells us how pious Muslim students will pray secretly at school to avoid judgment, declares: "I care about being a modern person, even though the women don't accept me as such."

Entering an underwear shop in the old city, the bras and panties on display include things every bit as saucy as what is on offer at Victoria's Secret in the United States. To my surprise a covered woman sales clerk greets us at the counter. Do young religious women buy these things, I ask, pointing at the more risqué items? What religious women wear on their heads, the owner interjects, has nothing do with what they wear under their clothes. The young girls come with their mothers, the saleswoman informs me. They are offended that we would be surprised.

The headscarf is old news; it is rapidly becoming normalized. The AK government dropped its suit against the state once it came to power. You can't sue yourself. The issue will be finally resolved when a new constitution is put in place.

But in the meantime, young Muslim women (and men), the children of the generation who felt the brunt of forced secularity, are busy creating a new modernity. Often raised by mothers who were first brought into the public sphere by the Islamic parties, able now to go comfortably to university in their headscarves, they are empowered and forthright, the kinds of young women who expect to choose their own lives.

My students and I first caught up with them at a café in Fatih, a densely built, conservative religious neighborhood where all the women are scarved and produce is sold from stands on the street. The cobblestoned neighborhood is centered around the Fatiah Camii, the Ottoman mosque housing the grave of Mehmed II who conquered Christian Constantinople in the 15th century. The young people here tell us they don't tend to go to Istiklal, whose name means "liberty," the walking street thronged with young secular Istanbulu who drink at the clubs and cafes. Café society in Fatih is exclusively for men who drink endless cups of tea, smoke, play backgammon and watch sports matches on TV. But we have entered a new kind of cafe that has flowered in Istanbul where up-and-coming Muslim writers and poets come to work, that attracts young pious, educated Muslims of both sexes.

We pepper two young female patrons, fashionably dressed in trench coats and colored headscarves, with questions about their lives. Both university students, they claim there are still some secular professors who give them lower grades because they wear scarves. Contrary to traditional practice, this café is a place where young women come to socialize with members of the opposite sex who are not family members or even friends without it being considered immodest, a violation of the Islamic laws against "mixing."

The young women at the café refuse the standard divisions. "We are trying not to identify ourselves in terms of 'modern' or 'traditional,'" a woman wearing a red headscarf asserts. "We are Muslim, living now in this city." Their relations with young men are chaste, modest, made legitimate by playing out here among the believers where everybody can see and understands the world the way they do. It is not Islam versus the West for them. On Facebook, they report their "activities" as liking "the feeling when you read the Quran." But they also listen to Elvis, Bob Dylan and Cold Play.

Is it right that a Muslim husband should be able to forbid his wife from working outside the home, we inquire? The ethnographic accounts of working class Islamist party activists are filled with stories of women who cannot even visit a friend without permission of their husbands. Indeed the Directorate of Religious Affairs now discourages women from being alone outside their homes with men who are not their relatives, lest they fall into sin. This religious guidance is not exactly compatible with women working.

But this is not how these women understand their world. They insist they have rights, too. "In Islam, there is only one authority and it's not the husband. It is Allah," a young woman, wearing high-top tennis shoes, a dark coat and a green scarf, tartly replies. "I will choose [my husband] carefully."

Democracy is about the right to choose. Turkey is at a critical cusp. But I cannot help feeling that with the proliferation of young women like these, the future of Turkey's democracy is in good hands.