Turkey, behind the veil

By Andrea Alarcón

Women wearing burkas in Afghanistan
Afghanistan women wait outside a USAID-supported health care clinic in 2003.
Nitin Madhav/USAID.

I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful country of Turkey for vacations. I loved Istanbul, the beautiful Cappadocia, stuffing my mouth with baklava, the music…. As I walked around the busy streets of Beyoğlu, I wished I could move to this magical place, so European, yet retaining an Arabesque tone in architecture, music, lifestyle…

and, oh yes, Islam.

Turkey is a nation of Muslim people without being a Muslim nation; it is therefore the most gender-equality prone in the Arab world. In the most touristy, “Western” parts of Istanbul, I saw occasional headscarves at the most. But the one day we ventured over to the Western district, the former Jewish and Christian ghetto and now a conservative and relatively poor area, I could only see Burkas. Women walked in the street only if clustered in groups or if going to the market. We also saw them standing outside a mosque while the men prayed inside, listening. The contrast between the two made an impression on me.

The Koran says women are worth half of a man. In many Muslim states that is, therefore, the law. We all know what comes with that: honor killings, forced marriages, weak rape laws… But Turkey is a state of secularism, and a state wishing with all its might to become part of the European Union. Many of us know the contributing factors that keep this from happening, but Turkey’s several human rights violations are the main obstacle impeding the country from gaining membership of the European Union.

According to an Economist article released earlier this year, Turkey ranks with Russia as the worst countries in Europe for violence against women.  A Human Rights Watch report states that

42 percent of women have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of their husband or partner, according to a study by a leading Turkish university. While the government can be credited with passing strong laws to protect women, these laws are rarely enforced, and additional protections are needed.

Apparently the country also ranks 126 among 134 countries in the 2010 Global Gender Gap Index; women also account for 80% of Turkey’s 5.7m illiterate people.

On the other hand, in the 1930s, Turkey became one of the first countries in the world to give full political rights to women, including the right to elect and be elected locally (in 1930) and nationwide (in 1934). Article 10 of the Turkish Constitution bans any discrimination, state or private, on the grounds of gender. Turkey elected a female prime minister, Tansu Çiller in 1995.

I read Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk’s Snow about a year ago, a story about a journalist sent to cover a suicide epidemic among teenage girls who didn’t want to take off their headscarves in the eastern city of Kars. The real-life epidemic actually took place in Batman. The main theme revolves around the conflict arising from secularism in a country of believers whose faith tells them state and religion are one.

Turkey is a land of contradictions. They wish to be western, European and secular, but their current administration is very conservative. They elect a woman to prime minister while still having an exorbitant rate of domestic violence. Are its people as European as their government wants? Is it a veil to try to give the best impression possible while the international community is watching?

3 thoughts on “Turkey, behind the veil

  1. I am a feminist and a Muslim too. I am able to fight for women’s rights because my religion protects women in every way.
    I just wanted to let you know that the Quran does not consider women as being half of men. In fact, there is a whole verse in the Quran which states specifically that women and men are made equal in every aspect possible, they are specifically listed as ‘partners’ for one another. The only place in the Quran, where two women are listed in lieu of one male is when called as a witness. This is to protect women because they are mothers, sisters, daughters and wives…and if they feel the need to protect their own family members or if they feel that their family members might be threatened, they may be compelled to not tell the truth. But this does not mean that they are a women is equal to half of a man.
    In fact, in Islam, women are allowed to run businesses, are not compelled to change their last names, have been given rights to inheritance, and men have been given instructions to treat their women gently (not allowed to strike their women).
    Also nowhere in the Quran does it state for women to cover their faces in a burqa…this a cultural tradition not a religious one.
    All the issues that sadly do exist in the Islamic world are cultural. If Islam is actually taken literally then it can be seen that rape, domestic violence and honor killings are strongly forbidden. Unfortunately men run the society in the Islamic world, as in other parts of the globe, and therefore their rules run society and as a result women are marginalized. They interchange cultural norms for religious norms while being ignorant of what the Quran actually says.

    1. @Sahar thanks for your comment, and I appreciate it since I have found my information from third parties, never having read the Koran itself. If they were wrong I apologize. But the main point remains the same, and you will see us in this blog not only criticizing Islam, but Christianity and Catholicism (which we know very well) Judaism and any other religion that is sexist and utilized to discriminate against women.

      Whether that was the original intention of the texts or of the prophets or not, religion in general tends to be more about culture than anything else. So yes, men running societies in the Islamic world and any other claiming the word of God as their weapon have used the book as justification for horrible sex-discriminating actions, to keep power, to tame the poor… you name it. We all know that’s not the original intention of religion, but it is what has always come out of it.

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