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Mobilizing Religious Leaders to Combat Violence against Women in Turkey

by Meltem Ağduk and Nükhet Kardam

Violence against Women (VAW) is a violation of human rights rooted in inequality between women and men. Resistance to combating VAW in many Muslim majority countries is ingrained in both the dominant patriarchal and the conventional religious norms. For many years Muslim women have remained silent, and nearly all interpretations of gender relations have been formulated by Muslim men and support the dominant norms. Turkey is no exception.

Meltem Ağduk, Gender Programme Coordinator for the UNFPA in Turkey leads workshop for religious leaders.
Meltem Ağduk, Gender Programme Coordinator for the UNFPA in Turkey leads workshop for religious leaders.

According to the 2009 results of “National Research on Domestic Violence against Women in Turkey,” 2 out of 5 women have been exposed to physical violence by their husbands or partners at least once in their lifetime. Violence against women became part of the public agenda in Turkey in the mid-1980s when women’s NGOs ran campaigns, established shelters, and initiated local training programs. Several interventions took place on VAW to raise the awareness of the general public, the decision makers, journalists, service providers, and community leaders.

After working on promoting gender equality for many years in academia and in international organizations, it has become clear to us that promoting gender equality and combating violence against women needs a multi-sectoral approach. Such changes require time, new allies, and new incentives. Political commitment, policy changes, and legal reforms are essential, but so are attitudinal changes in society, in gender relations, and in one’s own identity. We now understand that Islam must be viewed as an ally to gender equality rather than a threat.

In Turkey, until the beginning of 2000, all sectors related to the issue of VAW – law-enforcement, the judiciary, health care providers, social care providers, NGOs, and opinion leaders – worked alone or did not see the problem as part of their duties. For example, police saw the issue from the public order perspective and health care providers saw the issue as a health problem, but neither saw VAW as a social issue. After 2000, a multi-sectoral approach to combat VAW has become one of the most important interventions.

Raising religious leaders’ awareness of VAW is critical since they have a strong influence in local communities. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has experience working with local leaders around the world on VAW issues. The UNFPA has partnered with the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs (PRA) to provide training. The programs present a unique case study of how Islamic norms on women’s human rights may be merged with CEDAW, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women.

According to Hidayet Tuksal PhD, an advisor of the PRA, “Religious Affairs and other faith-based organizations have great importance on combating VAW because the problem is an issue that is somehow justified by religion … Of course there are difficulties. One of the important difficulties is the existing patriarchal knowledge of our religious leaders. This knowledge is also supported by the patriarchal mentality that has been built in the society … We believe through such training projects we will start to make small changes in the mentality.”

The UNFPA has partnered with the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs to provide training to religious leaders in Turkey. Photograph courtesy of the authors.
The UNFPA has partnered with the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs to provide training to religious leaders in Turkey. Photograph courtesy of the authors.

Turkey presents a fascinating case where secularism, representing modernity, and Islam have traditionally been seen as opposites. While women’s human rights are still discussed within the context of secularism (Western values versus Islam), the practice on the ground has been quite different and much more complicated. The UNFPA training programs of religious leaders represent a recent practice on the ground that reveals the complications, and helps us move away from a simple dualistic discourse.

PRA is the official institution that provides public service on religious issues. The presidency is responsible for regulating the operation of about 80,000 registered mosques and employing local and provincial imams. Recently PRA has organized activities and made new regulations strengthening the position and role of women in society. This is a pioneering move in the Muslim world. The PRA now appoints women as vice muftis to respond to special issues concerning women. Furthermore, family counseling bureaus have been established all around Turkey, serviced by women vice muftis.

The lack of trained, gender-sensitive staff able to give proper guidance on violence against women is what prompted the PRA to respond and partner with UNFPA and the General Directorate on the Status of Women to develop the training program for religious leaders. This program is meant to promote the capacity of religious leaders’ response to VAW through an improved referral system. The program aims to reach 100,000 religious leaders by the end of 2015.

A typical training program consists of 4 modules: a) How Islam approaches VAW, gender equality, Hadiths (Prophet Muhammad’s sayings) and VAW; b) Gender equality and VAW; c) Legislation on VAW in Turkey; d) Teaching techniques and communication skills, and how to communicate with violence survivors.

One participant, Mustafa Koseoglu, tells us “I’m glad I participated in the training. The experts taught me what to do. The community was frequently asking me: ‘What should we do?’ … By this training we have learned how to guide people.”

Since the beginning of the program, UNFPA has worked with nearly 500 religious leaders like Koseoglu. Trained religious leaders have reached approximately 500,000 field staff who have been working as imams, Qur’an teachers, and preachers. According to the training evaluations, the sessions are very effective. Ninety percent of the participants feel more confident to provide guidance on the issues of gender and VAW after the trainings. “On every occasion,” reports Mustafa Demir, “we express that laying a hand on woman is a sin and Islamic religion prohibits this…”

The process of implementation has led to some difficulties and some surprises. For example, it was difficult to locate national experts on the issue of Islam, gender, and VAW. Bringing experts from other Muslim majority countries was not an option as every Muslim majority country has their own specifications on cultural issues.

During the trainings, we were surprised to meet many Muslim women who identified themselves as feminist. These women are mostly graduates of Theology Departments of the universities, continuing their graduate studies through masters or PhD programs. Both their involvement in the training and their activities outside of the training showed us that Muslim women, with their liberal and progressive perspectives, are the ones who will pave the way to change gendered notions of Islam.

The most important challenge for the project is the increasingly conservative attitude prevalent in the ruling AK party, accompanied by the restructuring of the PRA and changes in its leadership. This puts the achievements of the project at risk. Presently ‘the family and children’ are emphasized rather than gender equality and the protection of women from violence. Gender equality and VAW are still pivotal in the trainings. However, the perspective has shifted from women to ‘family and child’, which is considered to be a ‘safer’ discourse within the context of VAW.

The question becomes ‘where do we go from here?’ We need to continue raising the awareness of religious leaders on gender equality and combating VAW. However, we have to find another way to reach them because with the new more conservative perspective of the government, we cannot continue the same program. We are discussing this issue with the feminist Muslim women of Turkey, the staff of PRA, and the experts from various NGOs, yet we have not found the answer. But we are hopeful, as always.

We believe training programs for religious leaders represents an innovative approach that moves beyond the binaries of Islam versus secularism. These programs create a dialogue between the secular and religious discourses on women’s rights that is cognizant of the complexities and diversity of Islamic interpretations on the ground. It is clear that any transformation in women’s human rights is subject to the political vagaries in Turkey and anyone who is hoping for a moral revolution in women’s human rights has to, by necessity, become a savvy political player.

About the authors:

Nukhet KardamNükhet Kardam is Professor of Development Practice and Policy at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. She is the author of “Turkey’s Engagement with Women’s Human Rights (Asghate Publishers, 2005) and has worked on women’s rights and gender and development for several decades both at the global and local levels. Most recently, Nükhet presented a paper at the International Studies Conference in Istanbul, Turkey in June 2014 titled: Women’s Human Rights in Turkey: Between Secularism and Islam?



meltem agdukMeltem Ağduk is Gender Programme Coordinator for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Turkey. She is a graduate of Journalism and Public Relations. After getting her MSci on Media Studies, she is now preparing her PhD dissertation on “Women Journalists in the Gendered Newsroom in Turkey”.

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