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‘Veiled’, Married, and Professional Women in Turkey at the1990s

Dr.Nese Oztimur, Art & Science Faculty, Sociology Department, Uludag University, Bursa/ TURKEY
A paper presented at The 2001 Conference (CESNUR-INFORM) in London. Preliminary version - Do not reproduce without the consent of the author

The trick isClutching them and not downing is the utmost that a human being achieves.


In this paper I will try to investigate the ‘veiled’, professionally working and married women’s everyday life experiences, at the last two decades in Turkey. The main argument of the paper is about these women’s unique way of legitimising and organising their everyday life activities and relationships. The uniqueness or difference of these women raises from the articulating of Islamic way of life to the necessities of capitalistic modern everyday life. The Islamic belief system which requires the specific ways of acting, body organisation, and relationship patterns is used by these women as a guide to organise social relationships in the everyday life. However, these women don’t exempt from the capitalistic and modern life expectations, relationship patterns and life cycle organisations. The Islamic uprising of the last two decades in Turkey, in its essence, is a kind of protest to the modern capitalistic way of life. However, Islamic opposition was formulated in the boundaries of current social-cultural, economic, and political systems of Turkey. The demand of the Islamic uprising was not only the criticism of the modernity. But the behind of this demand there was an implicit one: more participation to the economic, social and cultural life. For the professionally working, veiled and married women’s case, more participation to the economic and social-cultural life caused to decrease of their Islamic protest’s radicalism on the one hand, and the increase of their power to interpret Islamic stances to legitimise their everyday life activities or relationships on the other. In this respect, there are two paths that the paper will seek to follow. Firstly, debate on the existence of the social action, will be critically reviewed to reach the appropriate methodological and epistemological assumptions to study on the Islamic women. Secondly, the findings of the research, adapted among twelve married, professionally working and ‘veiled’ women will be discussed.


In Turkey at the last two decades, the women who organised their bodies and dressing forms according to Islamic point of view became the focus of sociological analysis. These women’s significance for the media or academicians was not because of their religious choices. But the other identity sources of these women such as being a university student, or being a professionally working women caused to the increase of attention to them. It is really interesting that this attention condensed only on their dressing form rather than their womanhood practice, or their way of religious experience. The modern statuses of these women and their Islamic dressing form was seen as incompatible to each other. There are many reasons behind this attitude. [1] But in the scope of this presentation, I’ll not discuss this issues, but rather I will try to investigate the parameters of the womanhood experiences of ‘veiled’, professionally working and married women. I choose these women as my focus of interest because I had in my mind some sociological assumptions about the everyday agency of women. So, I will summarise my theoretical standpoint before discussing the findings of my fieldwork.

As we know, at the history of sociology there are many different viewpoints about the dynamics of social actions of individuals. The sociological analysis of the dynamics or nature of the social action requires the elaboration of the relationship pattern between the society and individual. There are many trends in the sociological tradition about this issue. However, the contemporary social theory (or sociology) which is affected by the phenomenology and symbolic interactionism supplies the most proper one for the analysing of the everyday life experiences of the women who are the subjects of the fieldwork.

The common characteristics of the current sociological investigations about the social action is more clear at their attention on the "reflexivity" of the actors, or agents. This outlook juxtaposes with the paradigmatic shift in the social theory from the simple modernisation model to the reflexive one (Ulrich Beck, 1997). The classical assumptions of the Enlightenment thought were in major part criticised by the new trends in the social theory. The embodied and inter-subjective subject of the feminist and post modernist thought negated the disembodied and rational subject of the Enlightenment (Seyla Benhabib, 1998). At the new trends of the social theory, the individual and society relationship had been evaluated not as been at the classical sociologists. Not the abstract society idea but the interaction among the actors and the inter-subjectively constituted meaning are the issues that are developed and enriched by the contemporary trends of social thought.

This means that contemporary sociology especially the ones that had been affected by the contributions of phenomenology concentrate their attention to the significance of language, dialogue, and inter-subjectivity for the sociological analysis.

Accordingly, social action is realised within the boundaries of practical consciousness which consists of the shared understandings between individuals.(Anthony Giddens, 1991). On the other hand the other point of view in the sociological thought elaborates the social action as follows: "Action is the behaviour of an actor guided by cultural orientations and set within social relations defined by an unequal connection with the social control of these orientations" (Alain Touraine, 1981:61). The key terms here are ‘social control’ and ‘orientation’. The picture Touraine draws of society is that of a social field occupied by actors acting as collectivities by dint of a recognition of common interests and common cultural orientations. These actors compete, from positions of unequal strength, with other such groups for control over the systems of norms which govern the rules of the game. In other words, according to Touraine, the social field is not merely a sphere of shared orientations, it is also an object of contention between competing and conflicting social groups.

On the other hand Pierre Bourdieu (1987) has given attention to the social practice with considering the relationship between the subjective expectations and objective probabilities. In other words, there is an adjustment between the individual’s hopes, aspirations, goals and expectations on the one hand, and objective situation in which they find themselves by virtue of their place in the social order, on the other. The term strategy or strategising is significant in Bourdieu’s social practice theory. As an alternative to the idea that behaviour is rule-governed, the notion of strategising is an important link between the notions of practice, habitus and field. Strategies are the ongoing result of the interaction between the dispositions of the habitus and the constraints and possibilities which are the reality of any given social field. In sum, there are two significant insight that I borrowed from the debates on the sociology of action. Firstly, the social actor has a practical consciousness, in respect to meaning system that is shared by others. Secondly, this practical consciousness does not consist only from the shared and expected meaning systems, but the actor’s own goals, aims, so called strategies are effective on the organisation of action.

I think that the sociology of religion [2] should make some collobarations with the sociology of action theories. Because religion is still among the most significant and effective source of intersubjectivaly established meaning system, at least for the Muslim societies. Religion is experienced in the everyday life. Therefore, it both affects and is affected by the organisation of the everyday life. Religion as a social phenomenon affects the organisation of the relations, and the establishment of the meaning systems. Therefore the religious experience is not independent from the other tacit knowledge of the social relations or meaning systems. In the traditional forms of religious experience, the religious premises are joined to the other collectively shared relationship patterns. The religion as a social phenomenon belongs to the intersubjectively established meaning structure of the society. The idea of sacred or meaning of rituals is all-operational at the intersubjective level. The religion, with its unique way to explain the cosmos supplies individuals a framework to establish their social relationships in these shared meaning system. But this meaning system is also constituted intersubjectively. This means that being a religious one is realised during the face to face interactions of the members of the society in the everyday life. Also the practice of the religion is an embodied one. The body is the site in which the effects of the ideologies or belief systems may be observable clearly. The religious belief affects the way of walking, speaking, language style, dressing and so on. The body as a mediator of the everyday life is also the place of religious practice.

On the other hand, we should consider that gender is a crucial factor on the experiencing of religion. Gender roles and statuses are affective on the religious experiences. Religion, as a written text and oral narrative is practised with articulating it to the moral and traditional customs and structures of the society. Gender is significant for the character of the religious experiences (William Swatos, 1994). The gender relations within the society affect the women’s exercise of religious premises. The practice of religion into an everyday life is not independent from the settled gender relations, vice versa is also valid.

However, in the case of the women who consciously choose the Islamic way of life as an alternative to the other ones the religion’s role on the daily acting become different. Because, in such a situation the religion is chosen to assign the difference from the "others", and to protest the current relationship patterns, especially between the man and woman. Therefore, in these women’s case, we met with a new phenomenon about the experience of religion in the everyday life. However, everyday life is the focus of the change and transformation of the relationship patterns. In the everyday life the accepted cultural and social codes of behaviour patterns are performed by the social actors with articulating them to the necessities of current life style. Everyday lives of the actors are the strategic places in where the established values and norms or at least behaviour patterns are challenged, transformed and re-established.

The main problematic of this presentation is meaningful in the boundaries of this theoretical evaluations. First assumption is that: everyday life is the site in where the reproduction and transformation of the meaning system and social relationships are realised. The second one is : In Islamic framework belief means acting in a proper way. Therefore, everyday life is the place for performing Islamic belief as well as the reproduction of the social relations or structure. In women’s case everyday life is the arena in where women are negotiating or articulating their different subject positions. The everyday domestic life relation in the case of the working Islamic women is the most interesting and negotiable sphere. Because, they have to organise their relationships in this sphere, by considering their working women status, Islamic believer status, and also devoted wife and mother status. How are women who are professionally working, married and had an Islamic dressing form organising their everyday life activities and relations especially at the domestic sphere? and how are they legitimising their everyday activities? Which strategies are developed by these women to articulate their different subject positions.


The research that was done on 12 married, veiled, professional women constituted the database for this paper. The study was completed over a period of approximately 2 years (December 1997 to April 1999) in the city of Bursa, one of Turkey’s largest industrial metropolises. In-depth interviewing and life-story methods were used interchangeably. I also participated in various activities organized and attended by Islamic women. These included panels, Koran reading sessions, other religion-based activities, and wedding organizations. The interviews were recorded on tape and then decoded. The life story method contributed much to the research process. I met with each woman more than twice, visiting them at their homes and at their wok places. The space in which the interviews took place was very significant in terms of evaluating the women’s self-expression. At home they were more comfortable and more friendlier, but less confident in themselves, while at the work place they were more formal. Moreover, the life story method proved to be very effective for studying the women because it gave woman a chance to re-evaluate her life and come face-to-face with some important events from their past. Also, this method provided an opportunity to note the individual differences of women in terms of their evaluation of the significant moments of their life.

The ages of the interviewed women ranged from 26 and 40. Three of the women are dentists, one is a civil engineer, one is a pharmacist, one is a pedagogue (school principal), one is a research assistant in the school of theology, and five are teachers in different areas of education. Although both of the women originated from lower or lower middle-class rural families, all are now members of the middle or upper middle class. All 12 have traditional family backgrounds. The age at which they started to wear the ‘veil’(meaning a headscarf and long coat) varied: four started after their first menstruation, three started after they were admitted to university and felt pressure from friends, and five started after they met their husbands. All the husbands are also devoted believers in Islam and come from similar family backgrounds. All except one of the husbands have graduated from university. At the time of the study the men’s ages varied from 27 to 45 years.

All the women started to work before they were married. After they were married, specifically at the birth of the first child, some of them took a little break from working outside the home. Four of them have their own work places. The others have prefered to work at the institutions that fit well to their Islamic identity, otherwise with regulating their conduct and relationships according to Islamic stance.

What does the working mean for these women? How do they perceive their working situation?

The meaning of work is established by ideals that come from the Islamic point of view, but there are also nuances on the meaning of self-improvement through working. In explaining their reasons for working, the women developed two arguments. One that was common to all of them is the idea that they are spreading the word of "Islam" ("teblig") through working. Second, they emphasized their distaste for housework, saying that they prefer self-development within the working process. The words of a history teacher express these points well.

"...If I go out in street and gather some people together, I cannot tell them of religion and our past, but in school you can do it in front of a class of 50 people. Moreover, your job is to tell them and to pass on information... this is letting people know about Islam. Is there a more sacred job than this one?... Being passive is no good for me. What makes me feel unhappy is the feeling of uselessness. I always feel happy when I come home because I am doing a holy job."

These words reflect both personal and idealistic motives for justifying her working situation. The meaning of the work is politicized for the sake of the Islamic community, but the personal gains from the working experience are also illustrated.

?Why do these women feel compelled to explain their working situation? Men do not have to do so; for men, working is considered a natural thing. But women, and in this case, veiled Islamic women, feel a need to legitimize or justify the fact that they work. This is a strategy for coping and bargaining with the traditional code, which says that working outside the home is, in essence, not the responsibility of women. In order to combat this challenge, women justify their working situation by holding up the codes and values of the dominant discourses in their lives. Seeing work as done for the sake of the religion legitimizes their working status.

The words of the respondent who is a dentist are very significant for understanding the way these women perceive themselves:

"...??"...Being a housewife always seemed boring to me. As I have seen with my mother and aunt, it is really tiring and unpleasant... Once I got sick and stayed at home fifteen days. This bored me terribly."

Another women said:

In these quotes, working is seen as a "savior" that helps women escape from a dull life and unpleasant housewifery status. However, the above words reveal that the women draw the boundaries of their working conditions very carefully. It is obvious that a limited relationship with men is required. This requirement comes from the Islamic tenets that dictate a specific kind of relationship between man and woman. However, these tenets are also compatible with the concepts of piety, chastity and modesty, which have roots in patriarchal and heterosexual relationship patterns. Heterosexual relationship patterns and tenets constitute the basis of these women’s perception of sexuality. The woman’s body is seen as a place where the male sexual drive is met. Also, it is commonly held by all of the interviewed women that a woman’s sexuality belongs to her husband, that her sexuality is accessible only within the domestic sphere, through marriage. Therefore, a woman should protect herself from other men. This point of view is supported by the patriarchal culture, and Islamic discourse has an impact on how man / woman relationships are defined in the public sphere.

The working conditions and everyday life practices of these women are interesting in terms of the relationship pattern with men. For instance, the interviewed Islamic women who have to meet or work with men at their work place — the engineer, one of the dentists, and the Turkish literature teacher- indicated that the honour or modesty of a woman is not determined according to her relationship with men. Rather, her personality and purity in relationships indicate much about her modesty. On the other hand, the women who have no relationship with men in their working environment — the pedagogue, dentist, and history teacher- had more strict ideas about relationships with men. These women see men as the major threat to women’s modesty.

This means that these women’s working conditions affect the way they view gender identities and relationships with men. Their social position, class, and type of profession affect their perception of gender roles and relations with men. Women emerge as active agents who are neither the victims of definition by dominant ideologies or discourses, nor autonomous authors of self. They have the potential to resist or restate conflicting gender representations that may result in alternative constructions to previously existing, dominant discourses on gender. Everyday life relationships are changing as women negotiate with the tensions brought on through divergent dominant ideologies.

If this is the case, then how do these women negotiate their professional working status and required and expected obligations within the private sphere?

The meaning of marriage and family for the interviewed veiled women is constructed according to three points of view: the significance of marriage to control the sexuality of men; rising new generations of the Islamic community within the family; and development of love and sharing among spouses. All of the interviewed women have a positive view of marriage and family life. They experience gender relationships in marriage in relation to their working conditions, class positions and marriage type.

It seems that there are differences among Islamic professional women in terms of sharing domestic responsibilities with their husbands. The women who work hard and don’t have the financial ability to hire other women to do housework are demanding more help from their husbands. Those who have easier jobs and who have the economic opportunity to hire household help do not bargain with their husbands over housework. The economic well being of the women and their working conditions have a significant effect on the formulation of gender roles within the domestic sphere.

The women whose husbands offer to share domestic responsibilities use religious themes to motivate their mates. Their demand is a very modern one, the demand is a requirement of everyday life, but the way the demand is legitimised has religious implications.

Interestingly, women who were in arranged marriages demanded more help from their husbands. In these cases, the women were using Islamic discourse as a lever, and because of the nature of the marriage this tactic was very effective. These women use the Islamic discourse on gender relationships, in particular, when asking their husbands to take more of an active role. They point out that Islam assigns women many rights, including the right to work, the right not to do housework, and the right not to nurse babies. They also remind their partners that, according to Islam, men are supposed to protect women, that they are the ‘kavvam’ (protector, defender) of women. The man should attend to the woman’s well being, and this can be accomplished only by supporting the woman in every aspect of her life. The argument is that when a man supports his wife and helps her with housework, this is a way of protecting her.

This analysis reveals that these women adapt their understandings of Islam and of dominant cultural representations of women to fit the realities of their circumstances. As social agents, they enter a kind of bargaining or negotiating process with the traditional and religious discourses. What they experience is a "womanhood" that is an amalgamation of the ideal Islamic worldview and modern social practice. The major principles of this womanhood model are piety, modesty, and chastity, but these traditionally and religiously defined concepts are reformulated according to the necessities of everyday life. They legitimize their working situation by emphasizing that what determines a woman’s modesty is not her social participation, but her "conduct" and her relationships with men. Therefore, her social and economic participation itself is not ignored, but the major emphases are placed on regulating this activity with respect to man-woman relationships and fulfilling domestic responsibility. In this context, wearing an Islamic dress veil represents a choice of kind of gender relations pattern in which man and woman relationship is determined according to tenets of Islam and also to patriarchal and heterosexual discourses. Both of these discourses demand the control of the woman’s body, behavior, and relationships for being modest at the eyes of "Allah", or of the society. It is explicit that the different social discourses are joined together whenever the issue is woman’s social and public presence.


The only way to understand religious experiences of the woman is to examine of how they incorporate their religion into their life. Analysing religion-in this case Islam- at a textual level does not give much information about its effect on believer’s daily life. Islam is integrated with systems of living through the everyday activities of individuals, through the strategies they use to adapt and meet the needs of everyday life. For the women of this study, these strategies involve the "advantageous interpretation" of Islamic discourse as legitimisation of everyday life activities that are realised with respect to modern and capitalist necessities, and opportunities. The everyday agency of the Islamic women is sourced from their practical consciousness that consists of the joining of different knowledge backgrounds. The participation to economic and socio-cultural activities means to engagement to the various relationship patterns which are feeding the constitution of the agency. The more woman become face to face with the different relationship patterns, the more she may have a power to negotiate with subordinative discourses.

Therefore, the professional women are far more than the passive communicators of an Islamic point of view. Individuals have many social positions, or so called subject positions that affect their social agency (Mouffe, 1991). They construct their identities, carry out social actions, and build social relationships with respect to these overlapping or conflicting subject positions - such as being a professional woman, a devoted Islamic believer, a good wife, and a perfect mother -. Social identities are not stable; they are always in a process of renewal. Therefore, it is impossible to discuss the role and place of women in the Islamic movement without evaluating the ways they define and perceive themselves. Their different subject positions have pushed these women to reconcile all of these identities within the everyday life. It is obvious that their Islamic standpoint is the dominant one among others. They are professional women of contemporary Turkey, who legitimise and rationalise their modern activities and relationships by reference to Islamic / or religious discourse. The global spread of modern but capitalistic way of life, especially with the spreading of commodities and commoditised ideas-such as democracy, human rights, emancipation, liberation- affect all people around the world regardless of ethnicity, religion and gender. Of course, some people are benefiting from this trend much more than others. Still, it is not an obstacle for others to develop their way of using globally acceptable "ideas". The people who are at the margins are choosing local frameworks for adapting to global trends. Veiled professional women in Turkey are looking for more participation in modern capitalist society, but are legitimizing their way of doing this by using religious/Islamic discourse.



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[1] Here the term Muslim women refer to the women who have consciously chosen Islamic way of life. In Turkey, especially after the 1980s, as an effect of the Iranian revolution, or rise of radical Islam all around the world some women at the universities began to wear ‘tesettür’, the proper Islamic-dressing model for women. The ‘headscarf’ style of women in Turkey never represents anonymity. The peasant women’s headscarves are different from the headscarves at the towns and cities. In fact, there are differences at the style, colour and longs of the headscarves in relation to geographic differences. However, the wearing of ‘tesettür’ as a sign of the Islamic belief as nearly new and city based phenomenon. The terms Muslim women through this paper will be used to refer to these women.
Participation in the public sphere by women with bodily presentations that resemble the Islamic identity had been argued considering their relationship to "modernization" or "modernity". It is assumed that the "modern" style of women’s public participation is challenged by women who use Islamic dress codes when participating in high-status activities, such as university attendance or professional employment. Within the Turkish modernization/westernization model that has been initiated by the state elite, being "modern" and being a "traditional" were considered incompatible. In Charles Taylor’s (1999: 169) words, it is an "acultural" modernity model that describes the transition of modernity in terms of a loss of traditional beliefs and allegiances. In other words, the Turkish modernization is modeled by the state elite and some social scientists as a simple modernization, one that assumes the modern and traditional as mutually exclusive categories. Such a model leads to evaluation of individuals or social groups according to their level of modernity. Such a classification always causes the formation of hierarchies among individuals or groups. Women are always on the losing end of such classifications.

[2] Emile Durkheim’s case is the most vivid supporter of this idea. The Durkhemian way of analysing religion as an institution which contributes to the social order is not independent from his basic methodological standpoint. The evolution of the societies and the reconstitution of the social order during this evolution were the basic themes of Durkhemian analysis. Durkheim interested with the social facts and so the institutional basis of these facts. According to Durkheim, all the social facts have a function to the constitution of the collective social solidarity. Accordingly, the creation, and evolution, of different forms of human community are intimately related to the immanence of powerful passions and and emotions of a collective, sacred character (Chris Shilling, 1997, 1). It was Durkheim’s view that the possibility of the society is contingent upon individual’s being incorporated into the experience of solidarity. The religion has a significant effect on the constitution of this solidarity. However, Durkheim’s analysis does not include the meaning of each individual’s religious experiences for themselves. The religious experiences in the everyday life were neglected in the Durkheim’s theory. But Durkheim’s assertion that in modern societies religion would transform itself rather than disappear signals his concern with changes as well as continuities (Shilling, p.3). The women also had been neglected in the Durkhemian analysis. His interest was on the religion that was practised for the constitution of the solidarity or collective consciousness of the community. Theoretically the subjects of this religious practice were the men who had the more chance to participate into collective activities more than the women, at least at the age of Durkheim.
The other influential figure at the sociology of religion is Max Weber. Weber’s methodology that gives attention to the social actions and meaning of these actions for the social actors has a very significant contribution to the sociological theory. The understanding, verstehen,
as the locus of the sociological investigation was emphasised by Weber. Weber has searched the effects of religions on the legitimisation of the life interests, or daily life activities. His interest was not upon religion as the theologian conceives it, but upon the relations between religious ideas and commitments and other aspects of human conduct, especially the economic characteristics of human conduct within a society (Parsons, XXX).
Therefore Weber presented a new phase in the understanding of the relations between religious aspects and other aspects of human behaviour. Also, his primary interest is in religion as a source of the dynamics of social change, not religion as a reinforcement of the stability of societies. The importance of religion lies on its usage by individual agents to legitimise their everyday activities. Therefore, Weber did not evaluate religion as something that is controlled socially, in a collective way: The same religion may be experienced differently by different social groups. In other words, differences in occupation and class positions bring together different practices and benefits of religion in daily life (Weber, 1993: 24). However, Weber’s analysis on the human agency with considering the religious themes for the rationalisation of the everyday activities, is mostly silent on gender issue. The reason for this is that Weber’s epistemological framework only confers the conditions of sociality within a rationalised public sphere and largely upon men. Women are continually essentialised by associating the basis of their agency with nature and domesticity, which locates them outside of a rationally defensible idea of social life. Women may enter to the public arena but only with acquiring an instrumental rationality. What is the role of the religion for society according to Weber? Weber dealt with the role of religion within the construction of meaning and legitimisation of everyday activities. His interest was on the rationalisation of religion within the everyday life. Weber mostly dealt with the effects of Protestant ethic on the increasing of capitalistic behaviours and manners. Is the religion rationalised only at the economic sphere? What about the women’s experience of Protestant ethic? What are the effects of protestant ethic on the everyday life of the women? These points were missing at the Weber’s analysis. Because, religion was taken into account by considering the men’s activities.


The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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