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A devout, hijab-wearing Muslim is the co-founder of a website that has become a platform for questioning male-dominated interpretations of Islam.by Gorkem Pancaroglu and Adem Emre Topcu 29 January 2019
As our regular readers know, TOL normally does not cover Turkey, unless an issue concerns one of the countries we do cover in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, we have been making an exception because of the dire situation faced by many journalists in Turkey since the attempted coup in 2016. After that dramatic event, almost 200 media outlets were closed down and scores of critically minded journalists lost their jobs and now struggle to eke out an existence. We are proud to provide some international exposure to many of these Turkish reporters and expand, at least for now, our mission of supporting independent journalism and the freedom of the media to this fascinating and important part of the world.
Rumeysa Camdereli, a 29-year-old mother of a three-year-old boy, is a devout, hijab-wearing Muslim. She is also a feminist activist who runs a website aiming to empower observant Muslim Turkish women – and says she sees no contradiction between her faith and her belief in gender equality.
“Many Muslim women say that the current male-dominated interpretation of Islam is not the religion they believe in. If these men who create and support such oppression of women justify their actions through Islam, then there is something wrong with their interpretation. The religion I practice is not like that,” Camdereli explained.
The Recel [fruit jam] website, which she and some friends launched in September 2014, is a place where women can discuss the challenges and discrimination they face.
“We wanted to provide a platform for women, especially Muslim women, on which they would be able to express their opinions on various social issues, and also to talk about their interests, hopes, and struggles,” Camdereli said.
“We received much more positive feedback from women than we had anticipated. We now have many guest authors who contribute to our blog.”
A Dual Identity
Camdereli grew up in a traditional Muslim family, but attributes her broad-minded outlook to a father who taught her that all Muslims had to be decent humans and social role models, regardless of gender.
She decided to start wearing the hijab at the age of 12, although now she admits, “I am not sure how capable a person is, at that age, to decide on such important matters.”
The situation was complicated by the headscarf ban at the time, in the 1990s, which was in force at Turkish public institutions, including schools and universities. Camdereli was obliged to take her scarf off before she went inside the school building, an experience that reinforced her early activism.
“I felt as if I had a dual personality – one in school, and one outside of school. But this ritual only made my Muslim identity grow stronger,” she said. “I soon established myself as an activist who fought for the rights of women to wear headscarves everywhere.”
Camdereli graduated from high school at the top of her class and was accepted at the prestigious Bogazici University in Istanbul, where she felt further pressure to act as a role model.
“Since I was wearing a headscarf at the time – a practice that was still frowned upon – I did not have the luxury of making the wrong moves. I had to do everything right,” she recalled.
It was at university that Camdereli first became interested in feminism. Although she did not agree with everything she read in the articles she first explored, she said that it was her moderate Islamic upbringing that helped her reconcile the differences between her readings and her own views.
“Some topics, such as sexual freedom and abortion, were major subjects of debate in feminist circles. But although an abortion may not be a choice for me, that does not mean that I should try to interfere with the choices of others,” she said.
Camdereli also found feminist views on sexuality confusing at first, but then discovered a way to accept them, even while not agreeing fully.
“When I first read about sexual freedom, I asked myself: ‘How can this be possible?’ But then I told myself that sexual freedom does not mean that you have to be with more than one man. You can choose to become a monogamist. Being asexual is also a sexual freedom in itself,” she said.
At the same time, Camdereli continued studying to deepen her knowledge of Islam, and made friends in both feminist and traditional Muslim circles.
“That is my way of creating a balance,” she explained.
An Open Door for Taboo Subjects
Racel has become another way of bridging the gap between feminism and traditional Islam, she added.
A diverse array of contributors can use the platform to question the male-dominated interpretations of Islam and argue that the practice of using religion to support discrimination and oppression of women must end.
“There are many Muslim men who build their masculinity on deciding what women can and cannot do. We want to fight against that,” Camdereli said.
One recurring topic seen on Racel is the marginalization of women when it comes to Muslim prayer spaces, and traditions that exclude or discriminate against them.
A Recel guest author, Ayse Ozlem Eksi, recently described being forbidden to attend the funeral of her grandfather.
“Some younger cousins and I went to the mosque to participate in the funeral salaah [prayers], but even before we entered the mosque’s yard, an old lady scorned us and said, ‘You shall not go; women do not participate in the funeral salaah. That is not acceptable,’” Eksi wrote.
Eksi and her female cousins went back home and sat on the staircase, looking at the mosque from a distance. The author found the experience both puzzling and humiliating.
“I don’t know what was worse – the fact that, as women, we could not participate in the prayer for my grandfather, that all the men there thought that we did not belong in the mosque on such an occasion, or our feeble attempt to console each other that we were at least able to see the mosque where the men were praying for my grandfather,” Eksi wrote.
Camdereli is proud that the website has been accepted and supported by a wide audience, but notes that there have been many negative reactions to it as well.
“We received comments such as, ‘You are not Muslim enough,’ or ‘You degrade our women,’” Camdereli said. “On the other hand, some women wrote to us and said, ‘I have felt alone all my life and now, for the first time, I see that I am no longer alone.’”
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