Istanbul, women and Islam
Last week I visited Istanbul with my sister: a marvelous city where seas mix and cultures mix. Despite how much we both loved the city, I was surprised to see myself in an Islamic country. Of course that is the religion of most population, but before the trip I had anticipated that Ataturk’s secularization and recent approach to the EU would have penetrated more deeply in the society. More precisely, I was surprised about the absence of women in the streets. I am not talking about the fact that most women in most neighborhoods cover their heads, but about the fact that in most neighborhoods 85% of people in the street are men. Where are women?
This feeling was boosted with some unpleasant anecdote. Saturday evening after dinner, my sister and I were coming back to hotel in the tram from Beyoglu to Sultanahmet. The tram was packed, and suddenly I felt a hand trying to caress my thigh. Without deeply thinking about it, I slapped the guy on his chest, murdering him with my eyes, and that stopped him. It reminded me of the advice my grandma used to give my Mom in Spain in the early 60s: “When you ride the bus, wear a needle in your dress. If anyone tries an undesired approach, pretend that nothing happened but stick the needle craftily”. My sister also thought of Spain in early 60s, when men were excited about Swedish tourists to get away from the local environment of sexual repression. There were two types of women: liberal foreigners to sleep with, and local virgin & pure women to marry to. Women, when going out, always accompanied by their men.
I felt grateful last week for having grown up in countries where the situation is no longer that way: women and men share the space with mutual respect. I cannot imagine growing up in a society where I would prefer to cover my shoulders every day to avoid being disturbed in the streets. I don’t know anything about how it works in the workplace, but I almost prefer not to know. If generally women already need to make an extra effort to be considered, I cannot imagine over there.
Chatting about this with a friend, she told me that these situations were common in Islamic countries where women are considered as possessions and where business are men’s pacts. There are places in the world where it is even worse. Maryam Bibi, director of a NGO dedicated to help women in North Pakistan, receives death threats every day for wanting to change the status quo. Maryam was lucky because her advanced Dad wanted her to study, but that didn’t prevent her from being forced to marry a cousin that was 17 years older than her. With time, she created the NGO, studied a Master in UK, met Bill Clinton and became a clear leadership example. But it is sad that we still need people devoted to grant women the access to education and healthcare.
However, I still believe that Islam and Women’s Repression cannot be synonyms. Surfing on the net one can find webs such as MPAC organization that clearly defends a more participative role of women in key decisions. One can also read multiple articles dedicated to understand Quran in detail and demonstrating that women discrimination is a perverted interpretation of it. When so much debate is needed, it is obvious that there is still a lot to be done, but it is good to continue working to change the role of women and foster equal opportunities. First comes the access to the street to ensure one can see 50% of women there. Then comes the empowerment and access to governments and board of directors to women in order to increase presence there (which should be final goal). Today it may seem unreachable, but neither my Mom nor my sister and I wear needles in our dresses these days.