Women of Turkey: Between Islam and Secularism
A film by Olga Nakkas
In this exemplary documentary film, women (both veiled and unveiled, religious and secular) discuss the presence of Islam and secularism in contemporary Turkish society, where it is common for educated urban women to choose to wear the hijab. Turkish-born and Lebanese-raised filmmaker Olga Nakkas combines historical footage with interviews of Turkish women with an array of different professions. She provides an in-depth historical background of Turkey, including its foundation in 1923 by Ataturk, who went on to radically transform Turkish society. Describing how the leader broke from the Ottoman Empire to create a republic based on the twin fundamentals of nationalism and secularism, Nakkas discusses Ataturk’s belief that the political inclusion and social emancipation of women were critically important for modernizing Turkey. Nakkas features an impressive array of opinions in her film. One female interviewee states that she does not believe there is currently a clash of cultures in Turkey; she instead thinks that Turkish people, owing to their Ottoman history, are accustomed to living amidst cultural diversity. However, another woman asserts that since the Tanzimat period there has been an uneasy relationship between local culture and Islamization on the one hand, and modern, Western, secular lifestyles on the other. Yet another woman argues that Turkey provides a fine example of how to combine a secular system with people who share religious and spiritual beliefs, although in recent years there has been an increase in both extreme Westernization and Islamization. The discussion on the controversial ban on the hijab in universities and civil service is especially enlightening. One woman explains that she studied for one year without the veil, but then dropped out of school. Another woman says that the government sees Islam as a threat, and that effectively banning some girls from education through veil legislation is wrong in a democracy, since all girls have the right to an education.
The discussion then touches on contemporary Turkish politics. One woman argues that Turkey is experiencing an identity crisis, especially since the AKP, whose central goal is that Turkey be admitted into the European Union, came to power in 2002,. Another opines that Turkey is a melting pot of East and West, and that her country can be used as a model of how to reconcile the two poles. She believes that the current focus on joining the European Union is misguided, and that some Turks seem to believe that their genetic code will magically change if their country becomes a part of Europe. An additional interviewee says that the Turkish have an advantage in not being part of the US or Europe, and that they should preserve their own unique identity and thereby bridge the gaps between civilizations. These diverse viewpoints contain multifaceted perspectives on Turkish women’s integration of Islamic culture and modern lifestyles. The film’s balance between historical footage and live interviews make this documentary a tremendous resource for understanding modern day Turkey.