Şeyma Çetin is bursting with color: bright blue and pink eye shadow, a green half-sleeved shirt with jeans, a tie, and an orange headscarf. Her clothes and makeup stand out among other Turkish women in headscarves, and that’s Çetin’s goal: to show that it’s okay to be different. It’s a statement of defiance.
The headscarf was for a long time a controversial symbol in Turkey, where it was seen as a threat to the modern republic’s secular origins. For Çetin, though, it symbolizes freedom of choice.
“This is part of my political identity,” she says softly with a smile. “Society says a lot about what a woman in a headscarf should do, but actually, we can do anything.”
The 23-year-old student is among a growing number of women who call themselves Muslim feminists—and who aren’t going to be boxed in by stereotypes. They belong to a new generation of religious women marked by their increasingly vocal opposition to Turkey’s conservative government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
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Their mothers saw Erdoğan as an ally thanks to his lifting of a highly contentious ban on wearing the headscarf in government offices in 2013. Earlier that year, as the Gezi Park anti-government protests swept across Turkey, he had co-opted them as a constituency, describing them as “our sisters in headscarves.” But in the decade that followed, many younger religious women like Çetin have shifted away from the President and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). They accuse the government of trying to roll back the hard-won rights of Turkish women, including removing legal protections against gender-based violence and severely limiting access to abortion.
On Sunday, Erdogan will face the biggest test of his two decades in power in elections seen as too close to call. His popularity has been battered by rising living costs exacerbated by a refusal to raise interest rates to bring soaring inflation under control; a slow response to a devastating earthquake that left at least 50,000 dead in part due to unregulated shoddy construction, and rising authoritarianism that has led to a crackdown on the free press and a ban on nearly all anti-government protests. That includes the annual Women’s Day March in Istanbul, which for years has included an increasing number of women in headscarves—a sign that the Muslim feminist movement is growing and becoming more vocal.
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Some, like Çetin, belong to a Muslim feminist organization named Havle, which has around 200 members. This March, as in previous years, thousands of women gathered, even as riot police tried to disband them with tear gas.
“I grew up with Erdoğan’s government, and at first, we were able to gather and protest without teargas,” Çetin says. “Now our right to freedom of expression and protest is being met with violence. This government fears everything from everyone. We need a government that allows us to criticize it.”
Erdoğan still has a large base of support among conservative women, but a poll by The Social Democracy Foundation, a Turkish NGO, found a third of the women who voted for him in the 2018 elections said they may not do so in this election.
During Erdoğan’s first decade in power, women’s rights activists had major wins, partly thanks to pressure from civil society and partly to meet requirements for European Union membership—a one-time ambition for Turkey. New laws introduced marriage equality, criminalized marital rape, and raised the legal age of marriage to 18. Employers were barred from firing pregnant women and the government offered more financial support for working mothers, enabling them to join the workforce. In 2011, Turkey became the first country to ratify the Istanbul Convention, which sets out laws and policies to combat gender-based violence.
But in recent years, many of those gains have been lost or come under threat as the government has cooled on E.U. membership and allied with right-wing Islamist parties. In 2021, Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, saying it “normalized” homosexuality and ran counter to family values—a move Human Rights Watch decried as a “major reversal for efforts to combat gender-based violence and promote women’s rights.” The AKP has proposed reducing the abortion limit from 10 weeks to six (when women often do not yet know they are pregnant), and changing the statutory rape law so that older men would not go to jail for marrying underage girls. They retreated on these proposals only after protests by women’s rights campaigners. And in practice, abortion access has become more difficult. According to a 2020 report from Kadir Has University in Istanbul, only 185 out of 295 public hospitals licensed to give abortions provided the procedure. The rest reportedly turned women away, telling them doctors did not want to do it.
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Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s presidential rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has promised to rejoin the Istanbul Convention and provide more support for victims of gender-based violence, which Havle members see as one of the major threats to women. They are seeking to raise awareness about women’s legal rights in Turkey through social media and events and preserve remaining legal protections. The number of femicides and suspicious deaths of women in Turkey has steadily risen over the last decade to hit 579 in 2022, according to data compiled by the campaign group We Will Stop Femicide Platform. (Government data for the period is not available.)
Muslim feminists are using their understanding of Islamic scriptures to fight back, seeking to sway rural conservative communities that form the AKP’s natural political heartland. They explain that the Quran gives women rights to divorce and to receive alimony, inheritance and protection from violence. ”We share our experiences or use our views and comments on issues. We are not a religious institution but religious women who want freedom to be able to talk about our way of understanding religion,” says Havle co-founder Rümeysa Çamdereli.
Çamdereli tells other women she is a divorced single mother who struggled to have a romantic life after her marriage ended. She says her family disapproved of her having a boyfriend and thought she should dedicate her life to motherhood. But she no longer feels that being a good Muslim should mean giving up on love.
For many, the battle begins at home.
“Feminism for me is a struggle in your own house. It’s a daily part of your life,” says Sıla Öztürk, 32, a Havle member who has a young son and is studying for a doctorate. Öztürk’s mother Mualla Gülnaz Kavuncu wrote articles in defense of Islamic feminism in the 1980s, but she says her mother still talks about parenting as mostly a woman’s responsibility. Öztürk has had to convince her husband to change diapers, even though he’s generally a supportive partner. “I’m fighting all of them. I cry so much and feel so inadequate sometimes,” she says.
Berfu Şeker, advocacy coordinator for Women for Women’s Human Rights in Turkey, says the new generation of religious women are armed with more knowledge of their rights through the internet and higher education. They see women’s roles in Islam very differently from their government.
“The ruling government, since it came to power in 2002, started implementing policies that define women as obedient units of the family,” says Seker, adding that the government uses religious concepts to legitimize gender inequality. Under its view of Islam, biological sex dictates a division of labor and way of life—Erdoğan says women should get married and have three children. Muslim feminists believe Islam isn’t so rigid.
Havle conducts research and surveys, in subjects like early marriage, and shares their findings with preachers and religious education teachers. The group holds workshops about the rights of motherhood, divorce, jobs outside the home, and domestic violence. They work with municipalities to reach marginalized women.
“We don’t talk about feminism with them. We just show them how to defend themselves,” says Zeynep, a 28-year-old LGBTQ+ member of the group who asked to be identified only by her first name, fearing persecution. Zeynep says many of the women they work with are unaware of their rights under Islam. She and other Havle members educate them about their rights to be protected against violence and to have property of their own. They also help them understand where they can access help if they suffer domestic violence. But they don’t explicitly discuss feminism, which is seen by many in Turkey as a Western ideology that goes against family values.
Other Havle members have negotiated for more women’s worship spaces in mosques, where men dominate. A blog called ‘Reçel’ which means ‘Fruit Jam’ founded by Havle co-founder Çamdereli gives religious women the space to write anonymously about their personal lives.
Despite being relatively cautious, the group has sparked some ire. After putting its name to a statement objecting to a legal amendment that would remove rights for LGBTQ+ people, posters were hung on Havle’s office doors.
“We were accused of spying and subjected to insults online. We received death threats. A poster was hung on the door of our address registered with Google,” says Çamdereli, who had previously had an anonymous online death threat made against her.
Other feminist organizations in Turkey also face threats. The We Will Stop Femicide Platform, a non-profit group that helps victims of domestic violence and their families, is being prosecuted and could be shut down if found guilty. Melek Arı, a member of the platform, says the indictment accuses them of insulting the president on Twitter and holds a board member in contempt of the law for attending banned protests, such as women’s marches.
Zeynep says the principles of justice and equality are central to Islam. Her goals for Havle are to further inclusivity in a country that has seen Pride marches banned and prejudice harnessed as a political tool to co-opt conservative communities.
“What we are doing—women’s rights and feminism—is a practice of Muslimhood,” she says. “I want to be an example that we can be Muslim, queer, and wear a headscarf.”
—With reporting by Leslie Dickstein and Julia Zorthian/New York
This story was reported with the support of the National Geographic Society and published in partnership with The Fuller Project, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to the coverage of women’s issues around the world. Sign up for The Fuller Project’s newsletter, and follow them on Twitter or LinkedIn.