By Riada Asimovic Akyol
March 21, 2018
Amid all the political turmoil in Turkey, there is some good news on women’s rights. For the first time in the Turkish Republic's history, a woman has been appointed deputy head of the country’s top religious body, the Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet. It is the highest office in the directorate ever held by a woman since the institution’s founding in 1924.
The appointment of Huriye Marti, a professor at Necmettin Erbakan University, became official March 13. She had previously edited and wrote at the directorate’s Hadith Project. In 2011, she headed Diyanet's Family and Religious Guidance Department. Among her writings is “The Traces of the Negative Image of Women in Fake Hadiths.”
At a March 11 press briefing in Ankara, Diyanet President Ali Erbas said that more female officials will be employed “as soon as possible” across Turkey. There are currently seven women serving as department heads at the directorate's headquarters. Marti’s appointment comes during a somewhat distressing period, amid controversial remarks on the role of women in society, including justifications for violence against them.
Of particular note, Nureddin Yildiz, head of the Social Fabric Foundation, said in a video online, “Women should be grateful to God, because God allowed men to beat women and remain relaxed.” Prior to that, he had greatly offended large segments of the public by suggesting that children as young as six could marry other children or adults and that women and men should not take the same elevators.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Erbas slammed Yildiz's remarks. “We, as the Directorate of Religious Affairs, reject every kind of interpretation and thought that condones violence against women,” Erbas said. “There is not one single source in either our Prophet’s teachings or in Islam that condones violence against women.”
Diyanet has cautioned Islamic preachers across Turkey about commenting on women. A week after Erdogan called on Diyanet to more actively harmonize religious practices with modern society, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag and Erbas held a press conference on March 15, at which Bozdag announced the launch of a “huge campaign to convey the honourable place of the women in Islam, in accordance with the nobleness of Islam, to Turkey and to the world through books, television broadcasts, radio programs, seminars, panels and all other means.” Bozdag highlighted Marti's appointment, emphasizing her importance in the leadership of Diyanet’s upcoming campaign related to women.
Marti has demonstrated confidence and resoluteness in publicly defending women’s rights. In January, she appeared on a television news program, during which she affirmed that Diyanet has repeatedly declared that young girls cannot be married. She asserted that child marriage not only harms young people, but also wastes the potential of a generation.
On March 10, she spoke at “Women's Peace Struggle,” a conference organized by the Federal Women's Arm of the Turkish Islamic Union in Cologne, Germany. Explaining the relationship between the sexes, Marti said, “If a man and woman support each other and are a friend to each other, helping, warning each other about evil, supporting each other, then we are on the right track.”
At the symposium “Healthy Life and Women in Working Life,” held at Necmettin Erbakan University March 8, Marti was asked whether there is a place for women in the working world, does Islam allow women to work and is money earned by working women halal. She responded that women have worked in the fields for many years and that many women today work in factories and the service sector.
Marti further explained, “It is up to us to create the possibilities that will enable Muslim women to be present in working life while remaining Muslim.” She acknowledged “traditional codes” that “expect us to be a good mother and a good spouse,” but, she added, “it is necessary to think how a working woman can work in a healthier, more peaceful and productive environment.” Ultimately, Marti asserted that there is no religious obstacle to a woman working in conditions considered appropriate and not forbidden by Islam.
While many men and women online have warmly welcomed Marti's appointment, considering it an overdue step, some rigid conservatives are, not surprisingly, unhappy about it.
It is common that whenever the directorate appoints a woman to a leadership position, debate and criticism by uncompromising conservatives ensue. The first appointment of tenured female preachers in 2004, when Ali Bardakoglu led the directorate, was followed by the placement of two female vice muftis in Kayseri and Antalya, a historic step. Later, under Mehmet Gormez, Diyanet continued to appoint female public servants. Many female public servants were taken on board in 2016 in addition to mufti deputies.
More inclusion of women has triggered controversy about how far women can go in religious leadership positions. In Turkey, the line seems pretty clear: Women cannot be imams or lead congregational prayer in mosques, but they can preach and instruct. In 2005, Hayrettin Karaman, an authority on Islamic law and a favorite of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said that, in theory, there is no religious obstacle for a woman heading the Diyanet. Today, a woman serves as deputy leader.
It seems that the AKP government has finally come to regard a recent public upsurge in anti-women religious concepts unacceptable and harmful to Islam in general. “Efforts to tarnish our religion through women have coincided with our works [to increase women’s status]. That’s why we have been really saddened,” Bozdag stressed.
Despite backlash, Muslim women will continue to demand more rights, which they see as granted to them by God but taken from them by archaic patriarchal interpretations of Islam. The growing awareness and the number of religiously educated women means more supply as well as demand for greater numbers of female religious officials and leaders in the public sphere in the Muslim world. That would appear to be a necessity, not an unconventional impulse or an unorthodox urge.
Marti’s appointment can perhaps help shift Turkey’s religious culture toward a more egalitarian view of women. It currently has a diverse religious culture, where conservative and progressive views, with archaic and modern interpretations, exist and do battle.
Riada Asimovic Akyol is an independent analyst and writer. Her articles have been published by The New York Times, Al Jazeera English, The Nation and The National. She is pursuing a doctorate related to religion and nationalism at Galatasaray University,