In recent days, millions of women in Turkey have taken to the streets and to Twitter in protest of the murder last week of a young woman by a minibus driver who attempted to rape her. The focus has been on better ways to prevent violence against women. Some also place blame for an increase in such violence on the conservative Islamist views of the ruling Justice and Development Party. Yet the rest of the world should take note: What other Muslim society has seen protests by women on such a massive scale?
In Saudi Arabia, some have lately defied a ban on women driving. Afghanistan has seen limited protests to protect new rights for women. In 2012, thousands of women in Egypt took to the streets after a female demonstrator was stripped in Tahrir Square.
Yet the size of Turkey’s protests are perhaps the biggest sign yet of how much Muslim women today are challenging not only traditional patriarchal dominance but old interpretations of gender roles within Islam.
A leading Muslim activist, Noorjehan Safia Niaz of India, describes the shift this way: “Emboldened by the conceptualization of God as merciful and just, Muslim women are now seeking justice and equality within the families and are reclaiming their right to read the Quran and arrive at their meanings based on their own lived realities.”
Activists see their work not only in terms of public protest but in the true meaning of jihad – as an inner spiritual struggle. In a new book, “Men in Charge?: Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition,” a group of authors writes that it is necessary to “come to the understanding that gender is a category of thought.”
The book states: “Although human systems often prefer one group over another, such a construct cannot be assigned divine sanction because it not only removes us from the full responsibility and consequence of our actions, but also reduces the divine to a projection of our whims.”
Female empowerment still lags in most Muslim countries. Despite the progress Turkey itself has made in regard to women during the 20th century, it now faces attempts to define women’s role as mainly domestic. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said women and men cannot be equal because it “goes against the laws of nature.” During the protests, he said some female activists have “nothing to do with our religion and civilization.”
Turkey’s protests were in sharp contrast to a 10,000-word document released by Islamic State in January that describes life for women under the “real men” of the militant group and in “the shade” of a budding caliphate.
The document argues against equal treatment of women and men and refers to women in the West as “confused and complacent.” Girls can be married off as early as age 9. And there is no need for a woman to “flit here and there to get degrees and so on just so she can try to prove that her intelligence is greater than a man’s.”
No wonder more Muslim women are taking to social media, the streets, or spiritual jihad. Even as bombs rain down on Islamic State, the real battle may lie in the hearts and tweets of Muslim women in Turkey and elsewhere.