Women in the World

03.21.12

What Scares Turkey’s Women?

A Pennsylvania-based imam’s anti-feminist message is spreading in the U.S. and in his home country. Margaret Spiegelman reports.

No sooner were Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener released from prison than a death warning arrived. The two Turkish journalists were among more than a hundred members of their profession who had been arrested on terrorism charges in the past year, but last week they were freed after their cases drew serious attention in the Western press, having spent a full year in jail. The two had dared to investigate the Gülen movement, a transnational network of schools, media outlets, and other businesses run by followers of the imam Fethullah Gülen. At least that was how Sik accounted for his arrest. “Those who touch [the Gülenists] burn!” he said at the time.

On Friday, according to the press-freedom group Reporters Without Borders, Şık and Sener found the following message on Twitter: “Attention, attention. I warn the government and those that can should also inform it. Ergenekon [an alleged gang accused of trying to overthrow the Turkish government] is planning to assassinate Ahmet Şık and Nedim Sener. [The organization] is going to kill them and then blame the [Gülen community].” The sender used the name "Faiz Düşmanı" – Turkish for “enemy of Interest."

At first glance the Pennsylvania-based imam, 72, might seem like a most unlikely target for such a plot. He preaches tolerance and the power of education to raise a “Golden Generation.” His religious values generally coincide with those espoused by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party. But the imam's critics worry that he actually wields even more power within his movement than the prime minister exercises over the country. They call it the Cemaat – Turkish for “community” or “cult” – and say it’s an organized political force that threatens to further erodeTurkey’s secular principles.

I had never heard of the Cemaat when I answered an ad in the fall of 2010 to teach English to grade-schoolers at Çağ Fatih College, a chic private academy run by Gülenist educators in suburban Istanbul. Before taking the job, I wrote to a Turkish professor in Dallas, asking what she knew about Gülen-inspired educators, who run 33 charter schools in the state of Texas alone, out of approximately 100 across the United States. "Moderate, education-oriented Turkish Methodists is my view of them," she wrote. When I asked my future employers about the status of women at the school, they referred me to a male member of the faculty. “There are lots of women teachers!” he assured me. I pressed further, and he mentioned only that I would have to cover my knees and arms at school. There were other rules, I would learn. I just hadn't asked the right questions.

I found out on my first day of teaching. When I knocked on the door to the English department’s office, a woman walked up behind me and touched my shoulder. “Do you want to go in there?” she asked. “You can if you want, but we go in here.”  She led me around the corner to another office. The sign on the door was identical: “English Department.” Although the two rooms are only steps apart, the head of the department never entered the women’s office. Instead he called on the phone. I remember one day when no one rushed to pick up. He banged on the adjoining wall and shouted something in Turkish, then rang again.

Tucked between a mosque and a supermarket, Çağ Fatih College resembles a competitive campus in the States –a gleaming atrium looking out onto manicured playgrounds, and on the inside, Internet-enabled "chalkboards," swimming pools, and a smartly dressed, health-conscious catering staff. Brochures advertise strong science and English departments, and students regularly outperform their state-educated peers on national exams.

“They'd be like, 'You're a special boy, come and study geometry at our place tonight, but first let's watch this video about God.'”

The school also sets itself apart by offering numerous extracurricular activities, including prayer and religious tutoring. My colleagues met regularly after school for gatherings that one teacher described to me as part “Gülen book club,” part prayer meeting, to which students were sometimes invited. Gülen's writing is unapologetically anti-feminist. In his book Pearls of Wisdom, he writes that women are jewels, flowers, and chandeliers, but the wrong kind of woman is death: “A dissolute woman who does not know her true self destroys existing homes and turns them into graves.”

Elsewhere he does acknowledge that “There is no reason why women cannot be administrators.” Nevertheless, there are no women administrators at Çağ Fatih College. I never even met the principal, nor any of the five teachers who filled the position of vice principal at my school. They are all men. The same is true at Istanbul’s six other Fatih Colleges. While the great majority of their elementary-school teachers are women, all the administrators are men. At department meetings and teacher conferences, men sit at the front of the room, women at the back.

Gülen’s influence is pervasive. Faculty members constantly pass his books among themselves, and many have previously taught at other Gülenist schools in Turkey and abroad; the Gülenist newspaper Zaman is delivered daily to the teachers’ lounges; even the park benches in the schoolyard are stamped with the name of the major Gülenist bank.

Despite all appearances, I soon learned that describing the school as part of a “religious community” (a term I had hoped wouldn’t have the judgmental ring of “network”) was enough to make the other teachers flinch. “It’s not a community,” one of my colleagues insisted. “We’re just people who are sensitive to our religion.” At Çağ Fatih College, this means that boys and girls are segregated as much as possible. Classrooms are coeducational , in accordance with Turkish law, but from sixth grade on, boys and girls eat in separate dining halls, as their teacher do, and they’re separated for social and afterschool activities.

In the younger grades, teachers often divide their classes into teams of girls and boys for classroom competitions. They urge the boys to be as “well-behaved” as the girls. Nonetheless, my oldest classes (fourth grade) invariably were dominated by loud, aggressive boys, while girls rarely spoke up. I was discouraged by how often teachers had to shout to be heard, and by the way quieter students (mostly girls) were generally left out. Although I’m a soft-spoken person myself, I was surprised and saddened to see gender roles play out even more stridently in Turkey than in America. A colleague tried to explain why the girls were so diffident in class and why the students paid so little mind to their women teachers: “They respect their fathers, not their mothers.”

There was only one teacher who didn’t always speak glowingly of the school. “This is a man's republic,” she said. She filled me in on some of the rules that didn't apply to foreigners like me. The other women were required to call the vice principal on duty and ask permission if they needed to run errands during their free periods, for example. The teacher was frustrated that as a woman she isn’t trusted to manage her own time, or come and go freely. She wouldn't be surprised, she said, if she lost her job for "talking too much.” Other teachers disapproved of her for not participating in their extracurricular Gülen meetings, she told me.

While Gülen schools may represent the most conservative corner of middle-class society, many Turks worry that the movement’s influence is growing. A friend of mine who teaches at Istanbul University fears she might lose her job. Newly appointed administrators—Cemaat, she calls them, for their religious and political conservatism—have told her students that she’s a communist and that her extracurricular music club was a subversive organization. (I played cello with my friend and her students, and to my ear, “subversive” is an undue compliment to our rendition of “Beyond the Sea.”) She believes she's being targeted because she’s a secular woman and because of her friendship with a Jewish colleague.

She wasn’t surprised to hear about the apparent homogeneity of the Fatih College faculty, which consists almost entirely of observant Muslims in their 20s and 30s. What she found alarming was the stringent separation of men and women. As one of her colleagues, a lifelong Istanbul resident, puts it: “This sounds like Iran, not Turkey.”

One of their students took a test-prep course with a Gülen organization when he was in high school. He describes their proselytizing efforts. “They'd be like, 'Murat, you're a special boy, come and study geometry at our place tonight, but first let's watch this video about God.'” Murat (not his real name) and his friends distrust Gülen's glossy message of dialogue and tolerance, and are suspicious of his apparently sunny relations with the United States, where Gülen himself has lived in self-imposed exile since 1999. They subscribe to various conspiracy theories asserting that Gülen and his sympathizers are trying to infiltrate the government and transform Turkey into a theocracy. A new law that allows women to wear headscarves to state exams, they argue, proves Gülen's increasing social and political influence, and threatens Turkish secularism.

The news about women in Turkey is often grim. Although Turkish women won the right to vote in 1934, a decade earlier than women’s suffrage in Italy or France, their participation in politics remains comparatively low. The World Economic Forum’s recent Global Gender Gap report ranked Turkey as one of the 10 worst countries for women’s economic participation. Prime Minister Erdoğan encourages women to bear at least three children, and he discourages divorce. Violence against women is disturbingly high. In fact, the Justice Ministry recorded an increase in premeditated homicides against women from 66 in 2002 to 953 in 2009—a rise of more than 1,300 percent, although the figures could owe something to better reporting. Erdoğan’s government has introduced legal reforms to bring more perpetrators to justice, but according to Human Rights Watch, the laws tend to be poorly enforced by local authorities, who seem to value family preservation over women’s lives.

Women’s opportunities and public visibility vary greatly by region in Turkey, of course. But sharp cultural differences are apparent even from one Istanbul neighborhood to the next. When French fashion blogger Garance Doré visited the city, she was struck by “so many beautiful girls, sexy and free, smiling, relaxed, and who wouldn't bat an eye at any kind of passerby.” But outside the East-meets-West Village neighborhoods Doré described, I saw fewer young single women like myself traveling alone. Coming home in the evening to my apartment in the suburbs, 20 miles west of the city, I was sometimes the only woman on the bus with a hundred men.

Every day, during and after school, teachers at Fatih College are modeling – largely without question – a society where women's behavior is closely monitored, and where they have no voice in leadership. Many Turks were just as surprised as I was to find this happening in a middle-class, Istanbul suburb. When I described the school to a Turkish friend, an Istanbul University professor in his 40s, he told me, “This is not Islam. This is new. This is Cemaat.” If there's no place for women leaders at top-performing schools in Istanbul, where will they be squeezed out next? Do women have a place in Fethullah Gülen’s vision for a fast-changing Turkey?

The teachers I know at Istanbul University talk about how the city has changed in the past 10 years. Just look at how conservative women’s fashion has become, they say: they “can’t” wear certain skirts on the street anymore. They sense a growing religious presence on campus, too. More and more students are arriving from Gulen-inspired schools. The youngsters are well prepared academically, but they’re “not curious about the world.”

Although what women are wearing in Istanbul clearly doesn't tell the whole story, Garance Doré's take on street fashion does tell us something important -- especially in light of a the government’s new wave of Internet censorship. The government has banned has 138 keywords words from use on the Internet. As a result, the insouciant Istanbulites whom she described as “beautiful girls, sexy and free” might not be able to read what she wrote about them. Among the offending words in that quote? “Girls” and “free.”