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On November 24, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made the world headlines when he declared that "women are not equal to men" at the Women and Justice Summit in Istanbul.

His remarks produced an avalanche of criticism among outraged women's rights activists and local opposition deputies, not to mention in the international media. Two days later, Erdogan said that media "distorted" his remarks, but reaffirmed his views: "You cannot put women and men on an equal footing. Equivalence rather than equality is what women need."

One of the main criticisms of Erdogan's speech has been his stance that women and men cannot be treated equally or cannot perform the same jobs because it goes against their "nature". Regardless of how new or sexist this might sound to

On November 24, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made the world headlines when he declared that "women are not equal to men" at the Women and Justice Summit in Istanbul.

His remarks produced an avalanche of criticism among outraged women's rights activists and local opposition deputies, not to mention in the international media. Two days later, Erdogan said that media "distorted" his remarks, but reaffirmed his views: "You cannot put women and men on an equal footing. Equivalence rather than equality is what women need."

One of the main criticisms of Erdogan's speech has been his stance that women and men cannot be treated equally or cannot perform the same jobs because it goes against their "nature". Regardless of how new or sexist this might sound to many, such views on gender differences - with an emphasis on men's superiority - are unfortunately still widespread among many conservative Muslims (men and women) in Turkey and elsewhere.

'Nature' of man and woman in Islam

Ali Bulac, a popular conservative Islamic writer in Turkey, is one of those who disagrees with Erdogan's politics, but would probably completely agree with his remarks on the "nature" of men and women. Bulac wholeheartedly supports "traditional household-and mother-centred family structure", and states: "The ontological bond between man and woman entails not equality, but diversity in creation and the resulting difference." He blames modernity for the destruction of such relations between man and woman, and never fails to emphasise "natural strength and advantages" of men over women.

Muslims should recall that one of the Prophet's wives, Aisha, was not a mother, but remained immensely important to both the Prophet and the community because of her high moral character and deeds.

Yet, there are other voices within Islam which disagree. Asma Barlas, academic and scholar on women's rights and Quranic hermeneutics, says that patriarchal thinking, "is based in an ideology that…confuses sexual/biological differences with gender dualisms/inequality." Her reading of Islam's scriptures is also quite egalitarian. "As the Quran describes it, humans, though biologically different, are ontologically and ethically-morally the same/similar," Barlas notes. Because, according to the verses, "both women and men originated in a single Self (nafs), [they] have been endowed with the same natures, and make up two halves of a single pair."

Another female Islamic scholar, Hidayet Tuksal has a similar interpretation. Commenting on Erdogan's remarks, the renowned Turkish women's rights activist said: "Mr President might be inspired by his religious identity, but there is no verse in the Quran that clearly defines woman's and man's nature. Instead, there are verses that define human nature."

In addressing gender in any religion, it is important to understand the impact of culture on theology and the ways in which such interaction has shaped social practices. That is why Muslim women's experiences vary immensely by location and personal circumstances such as family upbringing, class and education.

The distinction between culture and religions is often ignored by community and state leaders in many of the Muslim majority countries.

They often ground inequality in the idea that God gives some different responsibilities and rights to women. Predictably, thinkers like Bulac dismiss the effect of patriarchy: "The argument that the male-dominated culture dates back to ancient times is a superstition invented by social scientists of the last century." Because of such views, the endorsement of misogynist interpretations of Islam continues.

But as Barlas points out, "the Quran seeks to protect women's rights within patriarchies by recognizing their sexual specificity as women", not the other way around.

Motherhood in Islam

Erdogan's remark on mothers also caused much outrage among women's rights activists: "Our religion has defined a position for women: motherhood."

From the Islamic point of view, Erdogan is right: Motherhood is exalted in Islam. In the Quran, special attention is given to the suffering of the mother in pregnancy and labour and the duty of children to be thankful for her self-sacrifice: "His mother carried him, [increasing her] in weakness upon weakness, and his weaning is in two years" (Quran 31:14); "His mother carried him with hardship and gave birth to him with hardship." (Quran 46:15). Moreover, the Quran privileges mothers in terms of parents' rights and some Hadith mention divine rewards for nursing mothers.

The key problem in the Muslim world regarding gender issues is that medieval religious texts produced in highly patriarchal environments and based on biological essentialism are still regarded highly in Islam.

Yet, it is wrong to think that Islam portrays motherhood as a woman's only function and worth. What about the women who cannot or choose not to have children? Are they unworthy in the eyes of God? Muslims should recall that one of the Prophet's wives, Aisha, was not a mother, but remained immensely important to both the Prophet and the community because of her high moral character and deeds.

One of the most quoted Islamic dictums that relates motherhood to Islam is a Hadith of Prophet Muhammad: "Heaven lies at the foot of your mother." Yet this Hadith has not been translated among Islamic thinkers into interest in the various experiences of motherhood and its transformative role in women's lives.

The key problem in the Muslim world regarding gender issues is that medieval religious texts produced in highly patriarchal environments and based on biological essentialism are still regarded highly in Islam.

Sanctifications of motherhood without mentioning its hardships for women - in their home or workspace - are not reflective at all of the Muslim woman's experience. Motherhood is not just simply a biological process that leads to birth; it involves many complex factors: In Turkey for example, those would be violence against women, child brides, women's informal work, widowhood, social security services, etc.

Therefore, awareness on women's experiences must be continually extended, addressing new challenges and describing new experiences. Religious scholarship of motherhood, therefore, cannot stop at mere glorifications of selfless love and idealised portrayals of mothers.

In this light, one key problem in Erdogan's speech, which is also very common among conservative Muslim men, was to assume that "feminists" are disregarding the biological differences between the genders and are disrespectful of religious traditions. However, the very fact that there are many self-declared "Islamic feminists" (such as Hidayet Tuksal) reflects the fact that feminism as a movement that advocates gender equality may share much in common with progressive readings of Islam in terms of respect for women's lives and rights.

In the end, the safety and wellbeing of mothers, as well as women who can't become mothers or choose not to should be the government's concern in any country around the world, regardless of religious or cultural views. The battle for gender equality is a global mission, which can be accomplished only by more thoughtful self-criticism, and not the holier-than-thou competition between cultures.

Riada Asimovic Akyol is pursuing her doctorate in International Relations at Galatasaray University in Istanbul. She has been a contributing writer for Al-Monitor and other publications. 

Source: Al Jazeera