Today's date:
Spring 2004

Visible Women: Actresses in the Public Realm

Nilüfer Göle, one of Turkey’s more provocative intellectuals, is professor of sociology at Bogazici University in Istanbul. Her studies have focused on “state-centered modernization” and the “new map of the Islamic world” drawn by terrorism.

Istanbul—The state-sponsored modernization in Turkey can be interpreted as a civilizational conversion, from the Ottoman-Islamic one to the Turkish-Western one. This conversion operates at the primary level of distinctions—taste, body language, eating habits and dress codes.

When this happens—when the cultural definitions of self and the imperatives of modernity are separated—we end up both with fragmented individuals and distorted modernity. In the Turkish case, the civilizational conversion mutilated the Muslim person who has returned to the historical scene through radical Islam as a kind of distorted collective identity.

Contemporary Islamic movements mostly define themselves as critiques of Western civilization. Their definition of self in relation to Western modernity is how they distinguish themselves from earlier movements. They have ceased to be apologetic. They no longer try to prove that Islam is compatible with modernity. Instead, they have refused assimilation and present themselves as the monistic alternative to the monism—or, as John Gray puts it, “monolithic secularism”—of Western modernity.

The difference of the Islamic way of life is displayed by Puritan-style ethics such as covering of the female body, prohibition of alcohol consumption and censorship of the arts. Choosing a way of life, in their view, is not a matter of individual decision but of communal morality. Defining communal morality is determined by a political battle between modernist liberals and Islamists.

In contrast with the West where the public sphere was first formed by the bourgeoisie and excluded the working class and women, in the Muslim context of modernity women have been the makers of public space.

Kemalist modernism in Turkey, which sought to make women publicly visible through the social mixing of the sexes, implied a radical change in the definition of public and private spheres as well as in the practice of an Islamic morality based on control of female sexuality and the separation of the sexes.

In fact, women’s rights and making women public citizens can be considered the very backbone of Turkish modernism. The removal of the veil, the establishment of coeducation for girls and boys, civil rights for women (such as electoral eligibility and voting), the abolition of the Sharia and its replacement in 1926 with the Swiss Civil Code guaranteed the public presence of women.

Within the Kemalist paradigm, women were the bearers of Westernization, carriers of secularism and actresses in the public realm. They affirmed the civilizational conversion.

Today, Islamist politics seeks to curb the free public space by limiting women’s visibility through veiling, which is essentially an effort to control women’s sexuality by regulating the social encounter between the sexes.

After the Islamic Revolution in Iran, for example, male and female students were separately seated in university classes. There were separate buses for men and women, surveillance in public parks and interdiction of women singers. In short, a woman’s body, voice and words were considered provocative by the revolution.

Hence, in a Muslim context, the existence of a democratic public space depends on the social encounter between the sexes and on the eroticization of the public sphere. In short, while in Western societies it is the issue of abortion and freedom of reproduction that provokes collective passions, in the non-Western Islamic context the issue is the freedom of seduction.