March 30, 2013

How Does the Gulen Movement Contribute to the Women Question?

Gulsum Gurbuz-Küçüksari*

Women in Islam
Fethullah Gülen’s perspective is different from those modern solutions to women’s problems. Although the function of women should never be diminished to their roles as mothers or wives, Gülen does not dishonor these roles to be insignificant. Rather, he calls for a reconciliation of duties of social and family life, but not to the extent to overburden women. Women in the Gülen movement vary. My paper proposes how Gülen’s ideas offer some avenues to solve the challenging problems facing today’s women in modern settings.

Interviewing fifteen women of different pursuits and occupations in the Gülen Movement, my paper presents in what ways the Gülen community provides women with social and familial satisfactions and how successful it is in doing that.

For Fethullah Gulen, while imprisoning women at home and confining them in the kitchen among ‘dirty dishes’ oppressed and degraded them; some modern reactions to women’s traditional roles have also gone extreme, oppressing and degrading women in another way. For the sake of proving equality with men, women were pushed into the hard labor force; and in order to demonstrate that women are not machines, some responses rejected the idea of marriage and having and bearing children. If women are not able to bear children that they wish for and if they are not provided a safe environment to raise them; it is as equally unbecoming and unnatural as seeing women as merely child-bearing objects, says Gulen. How safe, one urges to ask, is the modern environment to provide women with a possible child-raising environment, when it forces women to leave their children at day-cares full-time?

Gulen’s ideas on women’s role in private and public spaces offer an avenue between two extremes, both of which, in Gulen’s thinking, are oppressive and ignorant of women’s unique qualities. Gulen invites us to give ear to women’s primordial nature, physical potentials, spiritual worlds, psychological structures- which are different from men’s- when talking about their roles that can bring satisfaction to society and women both. It has been people’s cultural heritage that interpreted women’s roles confined at home and pushed women into a more restricted area day by day. Gulen believes that “women are responsible for carrying out the duties that befall them in every area of society as long as these duties do not conflict with their primordial nature or with observing religious requirements”. Still, in his thinking, exempting women from certain charges like military services and not making women liable for everything men are responsible for is not a disgrace towards women; rather it is Islam’s recognition of women’s needs and demands.

Women in the Gulen Movement: Is there a way to Get it All?

As we already mentioned above, Gulen believes that women, like men, can have certain jobs as far as their physiology and psychology are taken into consideration. Therefore, he says, “just as an understanding which imprisons women at home and takes them completely away from social life is absolutely incorrect according to Islam, likewise, depriving women of financial support, preventing them from bearing and raising children in security, and forcing women into the labor force to do uncongenial work is also oppressive.” A safe environment that can allow women to raise children, while also engaging them in the social life without being overburdened seems to be ideal for Gulen. Yet how much of this ideal can be presented to the modern women is a big question and my paper specifically questions whether women in the Gulen community has a better access to this ideal compared to others?

The data presented in this work is derived from my personal interviews with 11 active women in the Gulen community who live in the United States. Some of these women work in Gulen-inspired institutions, some in other places and some do not work professionally. All these women are married and have children and they all share having squeezed by modern time’s women dilemmas. All the women in the Gulen community that I interviewed agreed that the modern working conditions create “role conflicts” for women, especially when they come from a culture such as Turkish. A respondent stated that “female birds usually make the nest and coming from the Turkish culture, women in the community have higher expectations from themselves to be good mothers and good housewives even if they work outside home.” Turkish women do not feel content with their men’s taking care of the house. They believe that men are not capable of readying the house for guests or just matching the colors of clothes of a child, for example. This is why they want to organize and decorate their houses according to their own taste; this has been a unique cultural heritage to continue. Yet they also realize that they need to contribute to the outer world, be a part of it in order to feel discharged, to feel released from their tensions. Some interviewees emphasized the fact that women can be beneficial to their children only when they feel at peace. If they do not feel all right, then the time they spend with their children is of poor quality. One informant said: “I felt that I could be only discharged through an outside work, so I did work. But I sadly accept that my child loves his grandmother much more than me now, as he says it, since it was his grandmother who raised him, not me.” She believes that inside and outside work needs to be balanced for healthy mothers and healthy generations.

Most of the women who have had an experience of work and who are currently working agree that there is a bad feeling of guilt over their children that do not leave them as time passes. “Although I do not see a big threat to their physiology when placed in day-cares, I am not sure that children’s emotional and spiritual being is in safe hands at day-cares,” stated another respondent. This problem of modern working settings is hard to overcome, and one respondent said it would be a utopia to change this structure even by institutions founded as Gulen-inspired. “I tried working part-time but I did not feel any belonging to my job. One should embrace her job for better work,” one interviewee declared. However, it would be a great chance for women, if they knew that they would be easily hired again if they choose to work after years of motherhood they spend with their children. And if there would ever be a way to answer women’s dilemmas, it would be through increased number of opportunities for women to work part-time, most women agreed, so that they can combine their work in and outside the house. Women in general emphasized that the volunteer activities they do in the community gives them credibility, appreciation and prestige as well as leaving a good feeling in their hearts as they help others.

One informant, who has a child and has just started a job a couple of months ago stated that when she felt useless at home, the voluntary activities helped her to overcome her negative feelings about herself. But still, living in the United States, she wanted to learn English and become a part of the bigger society for social satisfaction. She now feels that her parenting is worsened due to her job, yet the way she continues doing her job is an interesting one: “I believe that the reason why I do this job should not be for material gain. I already make a sacrifice for this job by leaving my child mother-less when I am at work. Since I want to believe that I do not make this sacrifice for material gain, I have avoided spending even a dollar of the money I earned so far.” Women who have worked and who are working in Gulen-inspired institutions talked about its one big positive effect on them as they believe that their job is not meant to gain material benefits only. They had the higher purpose of serving the humanity in their minds when they had to leave their children at day-cares.

Respondents emphasized the lack of emphasis in the modern world on the significance of a woman’s family role, which is to provide a homely environment for family and mothering the children. “You feel weary even if you do not work outside due to in-home responsibilities. But when you work at home, your job is nameless and you work for a ‘no-named institution’, you do not get the appreciation that you get when you have a prestigious job.” They say that while they embraced Gulen’s teachings on the importance of one’s feelings to live and sacrifice for others, they are also modernity’s children and they look for appreciation. They want to have social status to be respected in the society: “Otherwise you are deemed to be an uneducated woman who has no choice but to look after her children.” Therefore at times when women do not have a chance to work, some women in the community, too, have suffered from ‘identity problems’ and ‘non-working women syndrome.’

Considering that their men have less expectations of housework and that they generally share some responsibility in the house, women in Gulen community believe that their men “are already transformed compared to their traditional Turkish counterparts.” One of the respondents said that her husband took care of their children by staying at home while she studied through her Ph.D. Women say that, being a part of the community, they can talk about their rights more freely to their husbands. Yet still, for women, men have a long way to go to truly appreciate the significance of women’s work.

Women emphasized the satisfaction they get when they are appreciated by their husbands, and this being a very important factor in keeping the integrity of their marriages. A woman said: “Appreciation of woman by her husband is that her husband is kind to ask her volition if she can host guests at his will, rather than giving imperatives to women to cook and to ready the house for guests. Men should learn that women’s is a major job, not something to be taken for granted.”

Problems of women are not to be understood with a manly mindset. Modern applications that present work equal work opportunities for both genders are far from practical and safe answers for women, who differ from men in their expectations from work conditions. As one of the respondents talked about her need to share her “love” in whatever job she is doing, she expressed a very womanly expectation from a working environment. This being the case, Gulen’s thought on women’s placement for jobs that suit their nature sounds very parallel to the demands of women in the Gulen community I had interviews with. Although Gulen’s ideas went in conformity with these women’s expectations, women put much emphasis on putting these ideas into practical applications. While these women see that progressive and ethical behaviors are shaping men in the community much more than other men in the Turkish society, they are not hesitant to ask for more appreciation for their roles and for more help in sharing the responsibility of the house work that can help them go through modern women dilemmas.

* PhD candidate at the University of Arizona’s School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies majoring in Turkish Studies.

Excerpted from the author's paper titled Unresolved Concerns of Women in the Modern Age: How Does the Gulen Movement Contribute to the Women Question? presented at the conference Islam in the Age of Global Challenges: Alternative Perspectives of the Gulen Movement, held on November 14-15, 2008 at Georgetown University. You may view/download the full article (PDF) here.