“Women’s rights will never be fully realized until we end the suffocating influence of religion.” Or try this: “Secularization is the answer to the oppression of women.” Versions of those lines are regularly repeated at the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women.
Rabeea * doesn’t believe it, however. She tentatively walked towards us as we sat on the bench outside a large UN conference room—a room where delegates from her native country of Turkey had just reported to the General Assembly on the stellar progress of Turkey in giving equal rights to women. Her long gray sweater was wrapped tightly around her thin body and her beautiful face was framed by a soft-blue scarf—a soft-blue scarf, the only outward symbol of her inner devotion to God. Her intelligent eyes shone brightly as she politely asked if I had a few minutes.
Her voice waivered just a little as she began her practiced speech. “I come here to represent the Muslim women of my country who cannot speak for themselves, the women of my country who cannot go to school, cannot get a job, cannot hold a public office; the women of my country who cannot have any semblance of a normal life. Why can they not have any of these things? Because of this,” and her hand reached up and brushed the edge of her soft-blue scarf. She continued “I was one of the lucky ones who was able to leave my country, get educated, have a life, but two-thirds of the women are not so fortunate. They must choose between devotion to their religion or a normal life in Turkey.”
She explained that in 1997 the government of Turkey, in an effort to secularize and “modernize” the country, banned the wearing of headscarves in public. You cannot go to school if you wear a headscarf, employers cannot legally give you a job if you wear a headscarf. I recalled an early event where I heard a U.S.-educated Turkish women speak about how she had been duly elected to a political office in Turkey, but was not allowed to take office because she refused to remove her headscarf. Now I understood why. Truthfully, I hadn’t really believed the woman.
But standing before me was another young woman telling me the same thing and pleading not just for herself or even a few women, but for two-thirds of the women of Turkey. Think about that; two-thirds! They stay at home and don’t do much of anything. They do menial work or jobs within their family units. They usually marry very young. “They get no education, no opportunity, no lives…they are treated as less than human,” Rabeea said with her voice breaking slightly and her eyes tearing up. “It was only when I came to this country that I learned what it felt like to smile…”
Rabeea had come to the UN–to an event centered on ensuring woman’s rights– yet her cause was being officially championed by no one. She was left to go person to person in the halls hoping that someone with some power would understand her cause and care. Maybe you’re thinking: “Come on…just take off the scarf.” Or, “Religion is the problem.” Or, “Parents must be forcing these girls to do this.” Or just maybe the question is this: “Do people have the right to worship as they choose?” Secularism demands that headscarves be removed—how about crosses, yarmulke, CTR rings, other modest clothing or any religious marks on skin?
The UN is a place where every possible thing is claimed as a “human right;” a place that claims to be the bulwark against oppression of women for any reason. Where is the redress for women who choose to do nothing more outrageous than honor their God with the wearing of a simple headscarf? I hear much public discussion and fear of the extremism of Islamic sharia, but where’s the discussion of “secular sharia?” Secularism can chain women too; just ask Rabeea. The debate of secularism verses religion, however, isn’t just the domain of the women of Turkey.
*Rabeea is not her real name. The name is changed to protect this young woman from potential negative repercussions from her country.