October 1, 2013

Using the Gulen Movement to Broaden Discussions in the West Concerning Muslim Women (2)

April L. Najjaj, Ph.D.*

…Through the various programs of the Gülen Movement, Americans can have the chance to interact with practicing Muslims, both men and women, on a personal basis and see the values of the movement being implemented and not just studied or read about in a book. From my own experience organizing tours of a local mosque and arranging iftar dinners at a local Middle Eastern restaurant for my college students, I know these techniques work and that such programs are making a difference in American perceptions of Islam and what it means to be a Muslim in today’s world. Such efforts give Americans the opportunity to experience the graciousness of Muslim culture on a personal level.

In the spirit of focusing on women, I would like to propose the possibility of expanding dialogue opportunities and suggest organizing dialogue dinners specifically for and about women. Early introductions of the evening’s program could focus on interesting cultural aspects, such as a cooking demonstration or a Muslim fashion show that could demonstrate the diversity of the Islamic experience, and then consideration could be given to more serious issues, such as the rights of women in Islam, clarification of the debate over the hijāb (veil), and the challenges of modern society for women of all cultures and religions. A secondary level of dialogue could then be done at a later date and in a smaller, more intimate group setting dealing with more complex issues specific to the Islamic world that Western women may have heard about before but lack the historical context to better understand and appreciate, such as cultural practices that have crept into religious observance and discussions of issues that are controversial within the Islamic world itself. Lastly, such a program would allow women from within the Gülen Movement itself to not only perform the traditional roles of cooking and planning behind the scenes for dialogue programs but also give them an opportunity to emerge from the background and take ownership of planning and organizing such programs for the future.

Wearing the veil is just a small part of the debate when it comes to the many different issues that should be considered in the West when discussing Muslim women. The hijāb (veil) loses its dignity when prevailing attitudes in Western cultures condone patronizing and discriminatory attitudes towards veiled women and reduce the veil to nothing more than an oppressive piece of cloth rather than considering the many layers of symbolism and tradition that it has represented over the centuries. The dignity that comes from the freedom of choice (again, one of the principles of the Gülen Movement) to wear the veil or not is lost when wearing it becomes something legislated by law to either put on or take off.

…The Gülen Movement presents the opportunity of a “third way,” so to speak, a middle ground between traditional Islam and the modern world that can provide all Muslim women (not just Turkish ones) the opportunities of work and education without an overthrow of Islamic values. In conclusion, it is important to note that there are many more pressing issues to be dealt with in the Islamic world than the worn-out debate over the veil. The role of cultural practices (often mistaken to be religious injunction), of patriarchy, and the realities of poverty, illiteracy, political instability, and the legacies of colonialism all should be demanding our attention rather than the debate over the veil that distracts from other, more important issues that affect the quality of life and opportunity for women, not only in Muslim countries but all over the world. The improvement of the daily lives of women and families in all countries should be our overarching concerns rather than the simplistic and superficial arguments over a woman’s appearance or choice of clothing style. In addition, women’s issues that should be taking a high priority in the Western world--equal salary for equal education and experience, reasonable maternity leave, access to safe and reliable day care, and the elimination of domestic violence—are equally applicable in an Islamic context, and on those issues is where our dialogue efforts should be focused, not on the veil. Women’s issues are similar throughout the world, and in the end, women from all societies want more or less the same things—to have rewarding lives, to be valued by others, to raise good children, and to give back to the community. Through considering these commonalities of experience, all women can share the hopes and dreams of improving their lives, both personally and professionally, and give any society the benefit of their education and experience.

*Professor of History at Greensboro College

Excerpted from the author’s paper “Using the Gulen Movement to Broaden Discussions in the West Concerning Muslim Women”, presented at the international conference “East and West Encounters: The Gulen Movement” at University of Southern California, Los Angeles, December 4-6 2009.

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