Young Muslim pioneer women have urged for more representation for women in politics, calling for gender-conscious policies for a better world where women's rights are considered as important as human rights.
"We need more women to be in politics," said Ubah Ali, a social activist and feminist from Somaliland who campaigns against female genital mutilation.
"Not only politics," she continues, "all the sectors. Because that is the only way of having a more inclusive society where women's rights, where women are represented everywhere."
According to Ali, the key is to not have a symbolic representation, but one that really works in favor of women's rights.
"We don't have to appoint women just because they are women. We need more active women in politics. We need more active men who support women's rights in politics. It doesn’t have to be a woman; men can also be a feminist for the rights of women. So it’s not about gender for me," she expressed: "It is all about representation, the way of it."
"Because you can be a woman, or be a minister, or be a president, but you can be a still symbolic figure. So we need more active people to be in politics, to be all sources of policymaking, all sources of job opportunities where we can achieve a more inclusive society."
Currently, the world enjoys a relatively more women-led political environment as the number of women at the highest levels of political power is increasing gradually. However, still, widespread gender inequalities persist. For instance, women in ministerial positions rose from 21.3% in 2020 to only 21.9% in 2021, a very small percentage compared to previous years. At the same time, the number of countries with no women in governmental positions has also increased as only 25.5% of national parliamentarians are women worldwide.
"Certainly, we all know big names of women who are good at medicine, sports, art, engineering and science, and we still doubt if they will be proficient in politics?" Nissrin Issa, a Palestinian blogger and social media activist, also asked on the issue and added: "I see that women’s presence is essential in all fields, at least to understand other women’s needs and rights."
Apart from the small percentages of representation, women in politics also face wider challenges than their male counterparts. Studies reveal that the challenges start at the beginning of the political journey as women often struggle more than men to finance their political campaign, forcing them to work harder in order to achieve the same result as their male counterparts. The party leaders also seem to favor men over women when it comes to supporting their campaign. The reason why is first, they tend to recruit the candidates who are similar to them and since the party leaders are mostly men, they tend to work with men, and second, women tend to have weaker networks which cause them to be overshadowed by their male counterparts.
Turkey also suffers from similar problems as it is ranked 122nd among 193 countries when it comes to the percentage of female parliamentarians. Despite this low percentage and poor ranking, it would be unfair to overlook the progress that Turkish women have made when it comes to being represented and visible in politics, albeit the reached state is far from the desired outcome.
As far as Turkish history is concerned, it is not rare to see women in administrative positions. For instance, in the earliest Turkic societies, including the Hunnic Empire, Göktürks and Mongols, men (known as Han or Khan) and women (called Hatun or Khatun) co-administered the empire, sharing the responsibilities of the management. Back then, Turks were living as nomads. After converting to Islam and holding on to a more settled and urbanized lifestyle, the societal structure has become more patriarchal. In Turkey's predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, women were unable to hold political posts. However, they were quite impactful in the country's politics, holding major political power in their hands, especially during the era usually referred to as the Sultanate of Women, corresponding to the 16th and 17th centuries. When it comes to the Turkish republic, women's attempts to be present in politics started in the very early days as Nezihe Muhiddin found the first women's party in 1923, even though it was never officially legalized. Muhiddin's stance paved the way for a strong women's rights movement, which, combined with the founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's reformist ideology, paved the way for legalizing equality between men and women in terms of their rights in 1926. In 1930, Turkish women acquired the right to vote in the local polls and in 1934, they gained universal suffrage at a date that is relatively quite progressive compared to most countries in the world.
Since then, women's participation in politics has been increasing continuously. So far, two women's parties have been founded in Turkey, the National Women's Party of Turkey in 1972 and the Women's Party in 2014. The first woman to become the party head in the country was Behice Boran, who was the leader of the Workers Party of Turkey (TIP) back in the 1970s. Since then, 13 more women have headed various political parties in Turkey. Currently, there are two female party leaders in the country: Good Party (IP) head Meral Akşener and the co-chairperson of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), Pervil Buldan.
Unfortunately, women in Turkish politics face constant criticism over not only their political stances but also over their womanhood. The criticism ranges from that related to women's appearance to their survival strategies in a patriarchal realm. One of the latest series of sexist statements against women in Turkish politics along with the wives and daughters of politicians took place last year when they became targets of misogynist attacks on social media.
However, women's struggle with the sexist attacks and policies is not limited to the political realm. Despite the progress that has been achieved in women's rights, there is still resistance among some groups to recognize not only these rights but also the necessity of such a categorization. In fact, one of the recent popular criticisms against feminism and the women's rights movement is the claim that such activities are the ones that "divide" the society since they highlight women rather than highlighting both women and men. This misconception of women's fight is usually served under the pretext of defending "human rights," and is sneakier than an outright opposition against women's rights since it has a "fancy" cover-up.
"I don't think that there is such a thing as humans rights because it’s clear that women everywhere are facing discrimination gender inequality. So we cannot generalize the issue. We have to be specific to what we are trying to solve," Ali said on the issue.
"We have to solve the problem from the roots. So, I don't think we can not generalize ‘Oh it's not women's, it's humans rights.’ No. We know that women are facing so many challenges around the world and we have to acknowledge where the problem is coming from," she emphasized.
The feminist movement uses the phrase "Women's rights are human rights" often in an attempt to show that these two are not mutually exclusive and to highlight the importance of recognizing women's rights as a cause in itself. The phrase was first used in the 1980s and early 1990s, during the second wave of feminism. Its most prominent usage is as the name of a speech given by Hillary Clinton, who was the first lady of the United States at the time, on Sept. 5, 1995, at the United Nations 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing. According to women's rights activists, gender equality must be a human right, but instead, it is often thwarted by the human rights movements, which are usually dominated by men, and thus, the recognition of women's rights as an included but separate entity is a necessity.
In Issa's opinion, women should feel anger when facing such attempts to eliminate women's rights under the pretext of human rights.
"I feel angry," she said, "and this anger should drive us to make the change. Unfortunately, we reach a point that a woman in the 21st century would protest in the streets, holding a poster to prove to the world that she is a human; whereas in the seventh century, our Prophet Mohammed commanded the men to treat women like a queen."
Another sneaky criticism toward the women's rights movement is the claim that women are the ones who harm other women, not men, to the point that some even argue that women are each other's biggest enemy.
"I don't think that the biggest enemy of a woman is another woman honestly," Ali stated, emphasizing that this is, in fact, a structural, economical and political issue.
"Women are not exaggerating the issue because it is apparent that women have not achieved equality, are not being accepted in markets and are not able to participate in policymaking. So we can't just say it’s a women issue, women were opposing women. No, the problem lies with the structure of the society. Society has been built in a way that oppresses women, not in a way where women are oppressing other women. Women are not supporting each other. Because the system is built like that. And if we say that the enemy of a woman is a woman, I don't think that is going to solve the problem," she said.
This stereotype, although quite common in almost all societies, in fact, has no real basis since the research reveals that women benefit from collaboration with each other rather than competition. A 2019 Harvard Business Review study shows that women who also have an inner circle of close female contacts are more likely to land executive positions with greater authority and higher pay, while there was no link found for the success of men in terms of the gender composition of their inner circles.
In Issa's opinion, in reality, women's real enemy is "fear."
"She's against that lady because she fears not to be liked as much as that lady. She's against the second one because she fears feeling not enough anymore. She's against the third one because she fears being judged if she follows her. We have a problem of scared women, scared from the society from the traditions, etc.," she underlined and added:
"We should empower women to have the courage to at least not do something new but support each other when they are doing something new."
Ali and Issa came together in The Islamic Cooperation Youth Forum (ICYF)'s "Young Muslim Women's Summit" which have taken place on April 6-8. The summit has brought successful Muslim women from around the world in all fields, from sport to arts, to politics to science.
When it comes to the complex relationship between women and religion, where both are often used against each other. Ali argued that the main problem is the fact that religion is presented in a way that it is against women's rights while in reality, this is yet another misconception of men.
"For many countries, especially in my country, religion is used as a political tool where women are oppressed," Ali said.
"Religion is used in a way that women are being told what to do. And women are not included in the religion because men in my society are acting like that they are gatekeepers of the religion. They believe religion gives the power to rule and tell people what to do. So, since religion is presented in a way that it appears to be against women's rights and against women, many women in my country ask themselves why religion is all about women. What about men? What does religion say about, for instance, when a man rapes a woman? When men violate the rights of the woman? When men harass women?" she asked, emphasizing that such presentation cause some sensitive issues, including female genital mutilation (FGM).
"The only way that we can avoid and prevent this situation is that women have to also see themselves as a part of religion and take a stance. Women have to study religion and learn what religion says some topics and issues."
Feminists and women's rights activists exist in every religion, constantly pushing efforts to achieve gender equality from a perspective of faith, emphasizing that women’s equality and faith are not inconsistent with one another. Challenging misunderstandings or misinterpretations of religious texts that have justified segregating society along gender lines, feminist theologians have brought up the issue of gender inequality in religious communities.
On the issue, Issa recalled a verse of the Quran where Allah says: “No soul burdened with sin will bear the burden of another.”
"This means each person must be aware that they are responsible for themselves and their actions individually. It’s difficult to change the mentality of those who think that way because we are dealing with a big wave of ignorance. However, we still have the key to control the future by raising an educated responsible generation," she said on the verse end, and highlighted: "We must spread awareness from a young age to see its results in the future."