An Eighth of the world today is comprised of Muslim Women – but many of them lack education, empowerment and earning power!
The world is perturbed about Muslim women; Burkas and burkinis were a hot topic on the French Riviera last summer, making headline news!
But while European governments –and too many Americans – obsess about what Muslim women wear, very few of them think about what Muslim women can offer.
Let me introduce you to Sarah Toumi
from Tunisia who is an Ashoka fellow
and like her counterparts, she started her public service work, first as a teenager.
When she learned that three of her cousins were dropping out of school because there was no school bus in their village, she pulled together an organization to provide busing, and within four years her village of Bir Salah had a bus – and three years later it had its own high school!
Now at 29 Sarah leads Acacias for All,
which curbs the spreading Sierra Desert by planting Acacia trees which improve soil quality while increasing incomes by 60%. So far 100,000 trees have been planted in half of Tunisia’s provinces.
Sarah believes her early start was the key to her development. Early entrepreneurs in Ashoka’s programs are four times as likely to become C-level leaders, four times as likely to be entrepreneurs and five times as likely to be founders or co-founders of new public service oriented non-profits.
Compare Sarah’s contribution with the disturbing trends in Turkey. Unlike its neighbors, Turkey is a Muslim country which has been distinguished in its unique and fair treatment of women.
Turkey does not treat women as second class citizens and generally, women have rights and privileges in their families. Turkey straddles women’s rights more favorably than most other Muslim countries. Turkish women have been the beneficiaries of enlightened policies that enable women to work and participate in private companies and public spaces.
Turkish women are empowered to ask their husbands to join them in the kitchen if they are cooking. Women can expect their husbands to participate in domestic life and if they don’t, they have the right to complain about their situation at a women’s center. How enlightened is that?
While Turkey has historically been a bastion of Women’s Rights, it is now witnessing an unprecedented erosion of rights. This erosion began in the Kurdish regions, where women have rights to the degree that a wife who is beaten by her husband can apply to have her husband’s salary diverted to her as his punishment.
The Kurdish political movement, the P.K.K. which is viewed by many observers “as a terrorist organization” is enlightened enough to make women’s rights a center piece of its political platform. Turkish women view the PKK as being exceptional in its support for women who view it as a heroic champion of gender equality despite patriarchal traditions such as polygamy, honor killings and daughters being excluded from the tables at which their fathers sat.
Kurdish towns have co-mayors, one man and one woman. New hires are balanced out with each woman having a male counterpart. And decision making pertaining to women’s engagement can only be conducted by women. However, the liberal tide seems to be turning and could well be under threat as Turkey roils with political turbulence.
To the dismay of women’s groups, the Turkish government, in the name of combating terrorism, has begun to strip away women’s rights in Kurdish communities. These “reforms” include a crack down on women’s centers and declares the garnishment of abusers’ paychecks as being illegal. “This crackdown is actually aimed at shutting down women’s organizations,”
said Feleknas Uca
, a member of Parliament from Diyarbakir. The government made lots of statements like, “You should go and have three children.”
How condescending is that especially in a country like Turkey which was enlightened when it came to women’s rights!
But this repression of women and their rights has spread in the wake of a failed coup. Feminists believe that the crack-down focused on the opposition to the AKP government is targeted at them in particular. Just as Trump’s election sparked a sharp rise in hate crimes in the United States, the wake of the coup has seen a dramatic increase in insecurity for Turkish women.
A woman named Karakas says she has, for the first time, found herself staying home at night as she fears instability. If she ventures out, she is sensitive to her clothing picks “which could invoke the anger of a conservative.”
This heralds a very different ethos for women in Turkey who are both educated and professional but are now faced with multiple challenges in their work place.
One religious group, the Ismailaga movement, decreed that while men would go out into the streets to support the government, women would stay at home and pray. “I believe it’s going to get worse after the coup attempt,”
warns Karakas. But she declares that she is undeterred: “The only way to stand against the current environment is to maintain solidarity among women.”
I think Karakas is right on when she focuses on the need to support women.
But I have to say that organizations that support women like Sarah Toumi are the real solution. If there were thousands more Muslim girls around the world being supported and empowered, crackdowns like the one shaking Turkey would be rare, and far less successful. But somehow it seems much easier for us in the West to deplore the situation of Muslim Women than to act. Why do we feel so un-empowered?
Happy new year to you and yours in 2017!