Barbara Bogave (BB): Isobel Coleman is a Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. She’s the author of the 2010 book, Paradise Beneath our Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East.
I asked her how women are continuing that transformation today.
Isobel Coleman (IC): Underneath the headlines, which tend to be very negative – about violence against women, women being precluded from attending school or having limited economic opportunities – there’s actually a lot of very positive change happening in the region. Women are making gains, certainly educationally. You now have the highest level of education for women across the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, where just a few generations ago girls didn’t go to school, they now significantly outnumber men at the university level, and that’s a trend you’re seeing across the region. Now you see more women in government, business and the media.
BB: Coming out of the Arab Awakening, how are women making using this momentum to affect change, especially in Tunisia?
IC: Well, women have played an extremely important role in Tunisia. It’s important to remember that every country and the starting point for women in every country is really quite different. Arguably, in Tunisia, women were starting from the highest point – very high levels of education, one of the highest levels in the region of workforce participation, a long history of women’s rights in Tunisia, dating back to 1956 when President Bourguiba took power. He implemented a whole series of changes that over the last half of century have really been baked into Tunisia’s political and cultural DNA, in many respects, that gave women a lot of rights. In the post-revolutionary period, you saw women’s groups organize when that language was floated about women being complementary to men and lots of protest in the streets – women and men together. But women’s civil society groups organized, got people out, and denounced this as somehow code that “complementary” means not-equal, and really demanded language around equality, which they do have in the constitution.
The other two things that women’s groups were very active on were. The first was making sure they had a quota that actually gave them 27% of seats in parliament, which is higher than what we have in the United States. The second was making it clear that they didn’t want Sharia to be the basis of law in the their constitution. It really became a litmus test for women in many respects.
BB: At this point, is it fair to say the debate over women’s rights in the Middle East in general is between secularists and Islamists? Or is it between moderate and conservative Islamists?
IC: Well, you’re seeing multiple debates going on in the Middle East today. And, one level, it used to be secularists and Islamists, but today, it’s much more a debate within Islam. If you look at a country like Tunisia, Rashid al-Ghannushi, the spiritual head of the Ennahda Party, when he returned from exile in the first weeks after the revolution, he said again and again, “I respect women’s rights, they are a fact of life in Tunisia.”
But many secularists didn’t believe him. The reason they didn’t believe him because there are many Islamists who don’t believe that and more conservative. Secularists are looking at the Islamists with great suspicion and finding it hard to figure out what they are dealing with, conservative Islamists, more progressive Islamists, etc. For the Islamists, they really have to prove where they fall out on some of these issues. And you saw the Muslim Brotherhood taking quite a different tact in Egypt.
BB: In terms of people actually affecting change in basic institutions, where are you seeing the most promise?
IC: You see it in a lot of different places. You see it certainly at a grassroots level. Women and men working on the ground through a variety of different civil society organizations to promote girls’ education and the right to an identity. Girls’ births are often not registered so they can’t access their legal rights. They can be married off at an early age even if the law of the country says the legal age is 18, since they don’t have a birth certificate, they fall through the cracks. You see people promoting gains for women through the health services, greater access to maternal and reproductive health. You certainly see it in the political sphere, with groups working at a grassroots level trying to encourage women to participate politically. This could be through training programs or media. They are working also at an institutional top-down, level, where a lot of countries have implemented quotas to pull women into the political system. You also see it in the private sector. The private sector is a huge driver of change with so much of your human capital being educated women, you see businesses turning more and more to hire and promote women. They become engines of change, they model new behaviors, and they break down cultural barriers.
BB: In 2011, as its Arab neighbors were seeing popular uprisings and regime changes that brought Islamist parties to power, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party -- or AKP -- was often seen as a model. It was an Islamist party freely elected three times that had brought great economic prosperity to Turkey. But recently the AKP's image has been tarnished by a crackdown on street protests and growing authoritarianism.
And in the area of women's rights, even as Turkey’s parliament enacts laws supporting gender equality and other civil liberties for women, its leaders, such as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, offer rhetoric that signals a much more traditional, conservative attitude on the part of government.
Dalia Mortada in Istanbul looks at how it’s playing out.
In early 2013, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a call to arms, of sorts. Speaking at a conference on family and social policy in Ankara, he urged married couples to produce at least three children; saying Turkey’s economic stability depends on it. Or as he stated it: “One or two children...equals bankruptcy”. And he called it an issue of family values.
That triggered a wave of outrage from women’s rights groups in Turkey.
Lawyer Nazan Moroğlu says that was for good reason. She says it’s just one more example of the message coming from the highest levels of government: that Turkish women should stay at home. She says it comes at a time when leaders aren’t addressing the real threats to Turkey’s progress: “If the people running the country said ‘this shouldn’t be happening’, ‘end child marriages’, ‘end women’s violence’ then it would be different. ‘Our women should work’ for example, this is never said.”
Moroğlu offers some disturbing numbers: a quarter of Turkish marriages involve a child bride. Half of women over the age of 15 have reported abuse at home. Only 26% of girls graduate high school. Women make up just 28% of the workforce, and even that’s a 45% jump from eight years ago. She argues that the ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, should train its focus on those areas, and not on family planning.
“Women could have gone much further in the past 11-12 years,” says Moroğlu. “The law supported us but because of the mentality we couldn’t.”
The mentality she’s talking about is the one that has parliament passing laws to address those inequities. But these days, she says, without the AKP’s blessing, there’s no follow-though.
“On one hand starting from the constitution onwards, in terms of rights there are laws being passed etc, things were moving forwards. Whereas in actual life, things are getting harder for women,” she says.
It’s a split between democratic process and deep-rooted social conservatism, as Moroğlu sees it. She explains that the Turkish Republic’s first constitution back in 1923, enshrined the rights of women. And those rights advanced more or less in step with other Western nations.
“And as with more conservative countries, women’s rights started going backwards,” she says.
Documentary cameraman, Koray Kesik, who just completed work on a film about child brides, sees decades of progress being reversed.
“Today there are women suicides, honor killings, child marriages. It’s a serious issue in Turkey, and it’s a serious problem today. I’m married. I have a daughter. She’s sixteen,” says Kesik.
Entrepreneur Bedriye Hülya agrees there’s a serious issue and she’s doing something about it. In 2006, she founded B-Fit, Turkey’s first – and only – chain of women’s fitness centers. She’s driven mainly by a social mission: to encourage low and middle-income women to get out of the house, maybe give them a sense of a life beyond the home, even if it’s just going to the gym a few times a week.
She says that with all the pressure on women to focus only on family, the concept was, and still is, kind of revolutionary. To buy a B-Fit franchise, you have to be a woman, and B-Fit owners don’t typically fit the entrepreneurial mold, coming from more modest backgrounds. No surprise that Hülya had to overcome a good number of skeptics.
“No one knew what we were doing, there was never anything like this. So we had to make it legitimate for people’s eyes,” says Hülya.
Berna Aydın, a B-Fit owner in Istanbul’s Fatih district, a deeply conservative Muslim neighborhood, sees B-Fit as a model for women helping women.
“One of the women here was actually having a problem with her boss and another woman’s husband was a lawyer and they’re suing the boss,” she mentioned.
Another owner, Ayda Tarakçian, who runs a B-Fit near Istanbul’s Taksim Square, agrees it’s so much more than the workout or the social interactions. For some women, it’s just the act of showing up, claiming some time for themselves.
“These 30 minutes are mine,” women tell her. “This is my right. I feel great. Life at home is better.”
Ayda hears it all the time: getting out into the world, it changes your whole outlook. And, she says, she also sees an attitude shift among men who now know her as a successful business owner. One man in particular.
“For example, before owning this business, my husband was not listening to me that much but now I feel stronger. Now he’s listening to every word I say,” Ayda says.
Lawyer Nazan Moroğlu sees the women’s movement as an important counter-balance to the AKP and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s rhetoric. But it’s those small shifts as well, like the one between a woman and her husband, that keep her optimistic.
I’m optimistic because women are aware. Even for those who are not aware, others will support them to gain more power within their families or in terms of their rights,” says Moroğlu.
For America Abroad, I’m Dalia Mortada in Istanbul.