Views on a new Near East
Sunday April 20th 2014

Reclaiming Muslim Space in 21st Century Turkey: the New Narratives on Women, Islam, and Secularism

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By Kelly Pemberton

Kelly Pemberton is Assistant Professor of Religion and Women’s Studies at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her research interests include gender, Sufism, questions of religious authority and Islamic networks in South Asia and the Middle East. She is the author of “Women Mystics and Sufi Shrines in India” (2010) and is a consultant for non-profits, government and private firms.

The confrontation between Kemalists and Islamists over the headscarf is well known, but what is less frequently discussed is the shift in dialogue that has happened over the past decade. The previous generation seemed pitted against each other in a virtual war over the increasing presence of headscarf-wearing women in public spaces. The old guard of Kemalists – particularly secular feminists – generally viewed headscarf-wearing women in one of two ways. Either they are victims of patriarchal males seeking to reinforce religious and cultural ideals about female subordination to male power and authority, or they are subversive elements seeking to destroy the fruits women have earned over decades of struggle for women’s enfranchisement.

A new generation of liberal secular feminists and headscarf-wearing women eschews the labels ‘Kemalist’ and ‘Islamist’ and rejects the status quo pitting secularism against political Islam. Some have argued that the headscarf controversy, which has long dominated Turkish politics, should not even be understood in these terms.1 Rather, the controversy over the headscarf is understood by many among this new generation to be as much a question of rights as of freedom. They increasingly couple discussion of the headscarf with a critique of the men in power, whether defenders of Kemalism and of the secularist vision of modernity promoted by the Republican state, or conservative Islamists, men who have failed to fulfil their promises to the women who supported their rise to political prominence in the 1980s and 1990s.

These two camps have long defined the spectrum of debate over the public presence of Islam, and have waged a war in which “women’s bodies and images have become ideological battlegrounds,” as the Turkish novelist and journalist Elif Şafak noted.2 For the new generation of social commentators, however, having an intelligent, thoughtful dialogue about women, Islam, secularism and rights is not only necessary, it is absolutely crucial to Turkey’s future.

As reflected in the emergence of a number of prominent (and lesser known) journalists, bloggers, and activists, and as indicated by an expanded narrative field, the landscape of public debate over headscarf-wearing women, and who sets the agenda for that debate, has changed substantially in the past decade. Debates on headscarf-wearing women are no longer confined to collective, homogenised depictions of Islamism; instead, they discuss the aspirations of and challenges faced by women in business, sports, intellectuals, and politics.3

Transformations in popular narrative expressions about women, Islam, secularisation, and public space reflect material and discursive changes in the formation of social, cultural and political subjectivities. Since the late Ottoman period, narrative expression, particularly the novel, has provided a prominent discursive space for re-envisioning society in modern Turkey. Closely linked to the development of Turkish Republican political history, the genre was imported from Western Europe at the end of the nineteenth century and formed an important part of Ottoman Westernising movements. Since the dominant cultural code was still based on traditional cultural models, the early generations of Turkish novelists were very critical of Western cultural mores; thus the early novels criticised women’s lack of veiling, the public emergence of sexuality, and other material expressions associated with Western cultures.4

 The 1960s saw the emergence of the first prominent novelist in Islamist circles: Hekimoğlu İsmail, author of Minyeli Abdullah (1968), a story about an Egyptian youth who devises a plan to establish an Islamic society in Egypt. However, in that decade (as with previous decades), and until the 1970s, the field of popular Islamist literature was dominated by the ilmihal genre, which addressed the basic aspects of Islam, particularly worship and other obligatory duties. Ilmihal literature was written exclusively by men, and their advice for women centred on women’s bodies and comportment (particularly modesty and domesticity/motherhood) as reflections of the moral superiority of Islam.

In the 1970s, a new, distinct voice among Islamists emerged in Turkey, coinciding with the rise of Islamist movements there. It reflected the views of male writers like Ahmet Günbay Yıldız and Mustafa Miyasoğlu, and a few female writers, such as Sule Yuksel Şenler, all of whom saw the novel as a key mechanism for articulating Islam to the general public. Despite their use of similar kinds of Islamicising rhetoric or rationality (e.g. Islam as the only means of salvation from worldly ills), these Islamist writers were not a monolithic group, nor were their aims and means of engaging modernity and secularism uniform. Their voices laid the foundations for the emergence of the hidayet romanları or “salvation novels”, which dominated the Islamic literary landscape in Turkey in the 1980s. These novels generally featured the journeys of protagonists from secularist ideals (and its handmaiden, moral turpitude), to religious awakening. This generation of novel and short-story writers also included a small number of outstanding women, such as Emine Şenlikoğlu, Mecbure İnal and Şerife Katırcı Turhal.

By the 1980s, religious issues – specifically, the question of a public role for Islam – were being openly debated by religious and secularist elements alike. This trend was reflected in several other developments. First, from this decade and into the 1990s, a new, parallel economy that catered to the needs and aspirations of religious Muslims had emerged in Turkey. Second, Islamist thought in Turkey was being influenced by the translation into Turkish of works of prominent intellectual-activists like Sayyid Qutb, Abu’l A’la Mawdudi, and Ali Shariati which, according to Çayır, “served to provide oppositional and revolutionary language for many Islamic groups.”5 Third, Islamist parties had come into the forefront of Turkish politics. Heir to its two banned predecessors (Milli Nizam Partisi and Milli Selamat Partisi), in 1983, the Refah Partisi (RP) won mayoral races in three cities: Van, Konya, and Sanlıurfa; it won the highest percentage of votes in the 1995 election, and was a major partner in the governing coalition of 1996-97, paving the way for the emergence of the current party in power, the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP). Fourth, Islamic expression had become increasingly visible among the middle and upper classes, particularly as reflected in the presence of headscarf-wearing women in such “secular” spaces as schools and universities. As today, the headscarf issue was a prominent and polarising element of discussions about public expressions of Islam in the 1980s and 1990s.

These developments are indexed in the emergence, in the 2000s, of two contrasting narrative reflections of Islamic sentiment among headscarf-wearing, activist women and their sympathisers. One, reflecting the voices of an older generation of well-known writers like Emine Şenlikoğlu and Sule Yuksel Şenler, depicts women as symbols of the ethico-moral injunctions of Islam. In their writing – novels, short stories, and a few journalistic pieces – domesticity remains the ideal state for observant Islamic women, although the pursuit of higher education and even employment outside the home is not discouraged.

In a 2002 interview for Zaman, Sule Yuksel Şenler’s response to journalist Nuriye Akman’s questions about the relationship between spouses in a marriage encapsulates the predominant attitudes of pioneering generations of female religious activists in Turkey about gender roles:

Akman: Do you think that [these days] woman should be completely subordinate to her husband?

Şenler: There is nothing in the Koran that says that men are [inherently] superior in any one thing. But the man has greater authority [than woman]. The male looks after the residents of the home.

Akman: Today [when] a man [says] to his daughter “she will look for a husband” is he considering her well-being, or in saying “become economically independent [and pursue a] profession, and you will be in charge of yourself” is he elevating [her]?

Şenler: Of course, my daughter, I am able to direct Muslim women towards a framework of available professions. Women can’t work in every field. Only women must not be compelled to work, the man has a duty to look after her.6

These words also reflect traditional cultural attitudes about women and domesticity. In the majority of Turkish nuclear families, women remain at the core of their household’s domestic space, shouldering most of the responsibilities associated with its upkeep, even if both she and her husband work outside the home.7 The symbolic importance of domestic order extends beyond the home to the wider society, and women are often discursively placed at its centre as well. Politically, discourses over women as the maintainers of (orderly) domestic spaces have been used by Islamic political parties as a kind of counterpoint to the secularist state’s discourses on women as representatives of Turkish secularism, modernity, and the ‘new Republic’.

A number of influential social commentators have lamented the ‘modern’ Turkish woman’s discontent with domestic life. As the conservative columnist Ali Bulaç noted in an article for the newspaper Zaman:

A woman’s home is not a prison cell, [and] her social life [and] personal relationships with her husband and her children are in need of protection, just as a warm home is [like] a sanctuary for old people … The female bird makes the home. If women leave the nest, neither will the home be kept [as it should be], nor will the person (i.e. woman or man) [remain] peaceful and tranquil.8


This view of women and domesticity is shared by Ali Bulaç’s peers: an older generation of Islamic ideologues that is uncomfortable with the demands being articulated by (and on behalf of) headscarf-wearing women today. The older generations seek to preserve connections with Islamic traditions and practice, and to reiterate the importance of continuity with the past, which usually translates into limited social and political roles for women. For this group, the political and social demands being made by women today are unreasonable, and threaten the very fabric of society. Their criticisms target secular feminists and headscarf-wearing women alike:

For the first time – humanity is in agreement – this fundamentally “modern Western” [lifestyle] brought about a deviation from this custom and modern innovations have aggressively supplanted the old customs. Today’s woman, home, and family are based on our false perception of modernity and [perpetuate] corruption and abuse.9


Unlike in the past, today many Islamic women writers openly criticise such conservative views. The new generation of Islamic activist women is fully willing to be at the front lines of the movement, and in public. The possessors of “dual cultural capital”, they have the tools for understanding and mastering important idioms of the religious social milieu (e.g. Islamic terminology), as well as a secular education, which has given them an awareness and ability to use modern ‘idioms’ of knowledge that their earlier counterparts did not possess. They do not confine themselves to pre-defined roles of Muslim women as domestic and domesticated. They are educated, intelligent, and demand freedom of choice on such matters as career and family. They debunk traditional interpretations of Islam, particularly such institutions as religious (non-civil) marriages, which enable polygamy (legally proscribed but still widely practiced)10 and which have led to the sexual abuse of young women, particularly those who are involved in the Sufi tarikats.

Regarding polygamy, the 1996 case of Fadime Şehin blew open the doors of this practice and provided a common rallying point for secular feminists and Islamic activists who openly critiqued men for their exploitation of women and religion. Fadime Şahin was a member (murid) of the Aczmendi sect who was captured naked in bed with its leader, Muslum Günduz, by television cameras attempting to record his arrest at his home in Kadiköy, Istanbul. He claimed that they had had a religious marriage. Şahin went public with the details of the widespread sexual abuse of women in the tarikats, as well as other details such as the commonality of lesbian relationships within them, on a secular news station, Kanal D.11 This came at a time when Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah Party, openly tied to such groups as the Naqshbandi Sufis, had formed the first government in republican Turkey that was openly sympathetic to Islam. Although it was later revealed that Şahin had earlier been in a similar relationship with another sheikh, Ali Kalkancı, she emerged from the scandal a heroine in the eyes of secularist and Islamic activist women alike for having stood up to defend her rights.12

In editorials, articles, interviews, blogs, and commentaries, from political platforms, and as activists publicly agitating for an opening up of attitudes and opportunities for headscarf-wearing women, Islamic activist women are unveiling what they see as the hypocritical attitudes of conservative Islamic ideologues, and calling on the ruling AKP party to recognise – and repay – the efforts of the women who supported the rise to power of Islamist political parties in the 1980s and 1990s. For many of the women who were politically active in those years, the disappointments that followed the election of the Refah party in the 1990s brought about a complete reversal of their ideas about the empowerment of headscarf-wearing women.

Named the most influential member of the Ladies’ Commission of the Refah party, Sibel Eraslan helped carry Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to power in the mayoral race in Istanbul. After the election, however, she and her cadre were accused of behaving “like feminists”. She was denied a share in power, and her group was replaced by one more pliable to the demands of the Refah men, and less inclined to ask for their own concessions. The expectation of the party was that women would fade into the background after the elections.13 This was a breaking point for Eraslan and many other women, who began turning away from Islamic arguments and toward feminist discourses to voice their demands for political enfranchisement.

Such voices reflect differences both in the medium and the message. While the novel remains a significant medium of social commentary, for the current generation of activist women and their sympathisers, it has lost its former importance. Their voices of change find expression, rather, through popular newspapers and journals, and through new media outlets: blogs, chat rooms, and social networking websites. And many among the new generation of headscarf-wearing women and their supporters are writing social commentaries that attribute continued discrimination against the headscarf to the moral and political failures of both the secular state (particularly the old-guard Kemalists) and the conservative Islamists who hold power today. Among the most important writers is Nihal Bengisu Karaca, a columnist for the newspaper Zaman and editor-in-chief of its Sunday supplement, who wrote that:

the headscarf is a story we think we know, but really we do not. The headscarf is an issue whose human dimension we remain indifferent to. Are you aware that there is no other image out there than the stereotypical one of a young girl banned from entrance into the university building? We are here to raise awareness. Let us open our eyes and recall that the situation has affected so many other areas in women’s lives. Amid the discussions over the civilian constitution and the lifting of the headscarf ban, the dreams of the victims subject to the ban have never been mentioned.14


These days, there is continued buzz in Turkish online papers and in the blogosphere regarding the demands of headscarf-wearing women. One topic that has recently drawn criticism from both secularists and Islamists is the political agenda of the group KADER, (Kadın Adayları Destekleme ve Eğitme Derneği). An association formed to support and groom women candidates for office, it brings together Ayşe Böhürler and Fatma Bostan Ünsal, both founding members of the AKP, and journalists Ceyda Karan, Yasemin Göksu, Nihal Bengisu Karaca, Hilal Kaplan, Cihan Aktaş, Hidayet Şefkatli Tuksal and Sibel Eraslan, who represent secular and religious women activists. Their campaign to get a headscarf-wearing woman elected to Parliament, launched in April 2011, has, predictably, drawn the ire of secularist political forces. But it has rankled conservative Islamists even more. In response to Ali Bulaç’s diatribe against the group, the journalist Hilal Kaplan commented on the hypocrisy of both secularist and religious conservatives thus:

Kemalist men [feel that] the “enlightened Turkish woman [should] have her head uncovered but it is more feminine that the hand does not mix the dough [in other words, that] a woman should not mix with men unless she is climbing [the ladder of success], like Muhittin Nezihe15… Apparently a number of ‘conservative’ men [prefer their] veiled women to defer to the authority of the men of their houses and mind their own business. If that’s what he (i.e. Ali Bulaç), understands ‘guardians’ of women to mean … he will end up being told ‘we don’t need it; keep the change’”16


The new voices of women – veiled and unveiled writers, social commentators, and activists – are serving as mediators between secularist “idioms” of knowledge and Islamic expression. Yet their increasingly vocal debates about the place of women, rights, and religious expression in the republican state do not signal the beginning of the end of tensions over the increasing insertion of Islam in public spaces in Turkey. The changes that have brought Islamic ideologues, politicians and activists to prominence over the past three decades still frighten many secularist women who feel that their way of life is slowly eroding under the authority of a government with Islamist roots. But the dialogue that is opening up between them and their headscarf-wearing counterparts seems to signal that, as the Turkish proverb goes, “baş başa vermeyince taş yerinden kalkmaz” (the heavy stone is only moved from its place through cooperative effort).

1. Aksu Bora and Koray Çalışkan, “What is Under a Headscarf? Neo-Islamist vs. Kemalist Conservatism in Turkey.” Arab Studies Journal 15, no. 1 (2007): 140.

2. “Viewpoint: Turkey’s Soul Unveiled,” BBC News, August 29, 2007,

3. For example, see the discussions of Muslim women in sports in Sertaç Senlikoğlu’s blog, which focuses in particular (although not solely) on the accomplishments and struggles of headscarf-wearing women active in sports and physical fitness activities,

4. Jale Parla, Babalar ve Oğullar: Tanzimat Romanınin Epistemolojik Temelleri (Fathers and Sons: The Epistemological Foundations of Tanzimat-Era Novels) (Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 1993), 79-87. See also Şerif Mardin, Religion, Society, and Modernity in Turkey (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2006), chapter 7.

5. Kenan Cayır, Islamic Literature in Contemporary Turkey: from Epic to Novel (New York, NY and Hampshire, U.K.: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), 159.

6. Nuriye Akman, “Şule Yüksel Şenler: Sevdiği insanla kaçana kahraman diyorum” (Sule Yuksel Şenler: I Call My Beloved People Helter-Skelter Heroes,” Zaman online, June 16, 2006,

7. Hale Bolak, “Family Work in Working-Class Households in Rural Turkey,” in Rita Liljeström and Elisabeth Özdalga, eds. Autonomy and Dependence in the Family (Istanbul: Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, 2005), 243-4, 251; Sevil Sümer, “Turkey” in “Family Relations”, Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures: Family, Law, and Politics, vol. 2 (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 147; Aynur Ilyasoğlu, “Islamist Women in Turkey: Their Identity and Self-Image,” in Zehra F. Arat, ed. Deconstructing Images of the Turkish Woman (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998; 2000), 248.

8. Ali Bulaç, “Kadın istihdamı” (Women’s Employment) Zaman, July 27, 2011,

9. Ibid.

10. Berk Çektir, “Validity of Religious Marriage (1),” Today’s Zaman online. September 4, 2007,; Ihsan Yilmaz, “Non-Recognition of Post-Modern Turkish Socio-legal Reality and the Predicament of Women,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 30, no. 1 (2003): 30-31.

11. See analysis of this case by Defne Suman, “Visions of Morality, Modesty, and Modernity in Contemporary Turkey: ‘The Case of Fadime Sahin’” (master’s thesis, Boğaziçi University, 2000).

12. Yeşim Arat, “From Emancipation to Liberation: The Changing Role of Women in Turkey’s Public Realm,” Journal of International Affairs 54, no. 1 (2000): 118-119.

13. Yeşim Arat, Rethinking Islam and Liberal Democracy (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2005), 66.

14. Nihal Bengisu Karaca, “Statüko bekçisi dindar kadınlar” (“Guardians of the Status Quo: Religious Women”), HaberTurk online, May 25, 2011,

15. A writer and activist of the early Republican period, and founder of the Kadınlar Halk Firkası (Women’s People’s Party).

16. Hilel Kaplan, “Üstü kalsın” (“Keep the Change”), Yeni Şafak online, April 4, 2011, Her piece was written in response to Ali Bulaç’s denigration of KADER in his column in Zaman on April 2. There, Bulaç described the leaders of KADER as a “fifth column” that wanted “to destroy the Islamist movement from within.”

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