For many, Muslim veiling represents the oppression of women in Islam. The head and/or face veils are a frequent topic of debate, which suggests that “saving” Muslim women from their oppressive religion is a moral duty of the West.
But focusing on the (in)visibility of women in Islam does not help the cause of empowering women in Muslim societies. Looking through the lens of Islamophobia, all Muslim societies are seen the same, where women are subjected to the same oppression. However, the contrasting examples of Saudi Arabia and Turkey show that this could not be further from truth. Muslim women are fighting for their rights, but are being held back by political moves.
Saudi Arabia is one of the most religious countries in the Middle East and yet the denial of basic women’s rights is down to a unique combination of Wahhabi culture as well as Sharia (Islamic law). The women who live there are some of the most voracious Muslim campaigners, but it is the laws of the land that they fight, not their religion.
In August, a group of anonymous Saudi feminists launched a new internet radio station, Nsawya FM (“Feminism FM”). Their main aims are to campaign for Saudi women’s rights, be “the voice of the silent majority” and to let the world know they exist. In recent years the internet has proven to be an important place to effect change.
Also notable has been the Women2Drive campaign on social media. Saudi Arabia was, until recently, the only country in the world where women were not allowed to drive – although this was more about Saudi culture, not explicitly against Islam and its doctrine. The eventual overturning of the ban was seen as a victory for Saudi women, and yet several leading activists who challenged the ban were arrested – some of whom are still in jail without charge.
The driving ban was lifted in June 2018 as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 programme to modernise some aspects of Saudi society. Eight months prior, Saudi Arabia took a truly unique step by becoming the first country to award citizenship to a robot named Sophia. Clearly the Saudi authorities want to create a new international image, but many critics have raised concerns, questioning why the country would advance robot rights while still holding women back. They asked whether Sophia would have to follow the strict laws concerning Saudi women, and whether “she” would be required to cover her head.
Unsurprisingly, many conservative clerics disagreed with the Crown Prince’s social reforms – as they erode cultural boundaries between men and women – and criticised the modernisation policies for being too close to Washington. And, despite the seemingly progressive moves, there has been an increasing crackdown on dissent. On August 22, Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor appealed for the death penalty for the first time against a woman. Activist Israa al-Ghomgham is on trial because of her work documenting human rights-related demonstrations.
Some 1,500 miles away, Turkey – once regarded the most progressive country for Muslim women’s rights – has been turning back the clock. When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, Turkey, as a secular democracy, had been a beacon of hope for many Muslim countries looking towards economic growth and modernisation, while retaining their religious identity. Under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however, women’s rights have been regressing further every year.
In November 2017, the government passed a new law that allowed state-approved clerics (muftis) to conduct marriage ceremonies. This practice had previously been outlawed by Turkey’s Civil Code because they lacked the legal protections of secular marriages. The change paved the way for any girl who has reached puberty to be able to marry.
UN assessments show that child marriage (under the age of 15 years) is one of the biggest obstacles to the education and empowerment of women. While child marriages are declining worldwide, 40% of Turkish women between the ages of 15 and 49 were married before the age of 18.
Child brides are among the world’s most vulnerable individuals. Once girls are forced into marriage their basic rights of and claims to education, equality and opportunities are lost forever. Despite opposition and secular groups calling for investigations, the future of half of Turkish society continues to be impeded.
The oppression of women from Saudi Arabia and Turkey – though on different scales – show that it is not Islam and its faith that represses women. It is political agendas.
Islamophobia dehumanises Muslim women and denies their agency. By focusing on the role of religion, Western Islamophobic views ignore the patriarchal and political structures within which women are oppressed. Activists are silenced, and child brides are victimised. The way forward for empowering Muslim women requires looking beyond Islamophobia, and recognising the urgency of gender equality irrespective of any race, religion or culture.
This article has been edited to correct the figure on the rate of child marriages in Turkey. It originally stated that 40% of girls were forced into marriage in 2017.