Rümeysa Çamdereli, the 29-year-old mother of a three-year-old boy, is a devout, hijab-wearing Muslim. She is also a feminist activist who runs a website aiming to empower observant Turkish Muslim women – and says she sees no contradiction between her faith and her belief in gender equality.
“Usually, women who define themselves as Muslim say the current male-dominated interpretation of Islam is not the religion they believe in. If these men who create and support such oppression of women justify their actions by Islam, then there is something wrong with their interpretation. The religion I practice is not like that,” Çamdereli explained.
The Reçel (jam) website, which she launched with friends in September 2014, (http://recel-blog.com/ is a platform where women can discuss the challenges and discrimination they face.
“We wanted to provide a platform for women, especially Muslim women, at which they would be able to express their opinions on various social issues, but also to talk about their interests, hopes, and struggles,” Çamdereli continued.
“We received much more positive feedback from women than we had anticipated. We now have many guest authors who contribute to our blog.”
Çamdereli grew up in a traditional Muslim family, but attributes her broad-minded outlook to a father who taught her that all Muslims had to be decent humans and social role models, regardless of gender.
She decided to start wearing hijab aged 12, although now she admits that “I am not sure how capable a person is at that age to decide on such important matters”.
The situation was complicated by the fact that at the time, in the 1990s, there was a headscarf ban in Turkish public institutions, including schools and universities.
Çamdereli was obliged to take her scarf off before she went inside the school building, an experience which further boosted her early activism.
“I felt as if I had a dual personality – one in school, and one outside of school. But this ritual only made my Muslim identity grow stronger,” she said. “I soon established myself as an activist who fought for the rights of women to wear headscarves everywhere”.
Çamdereli graduated from high school at the top of her class and was accepted at the prestigious Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, where she felt further pressure to act as a role model.
“Since I was wearing a headscarf at the time – a practice that was still frowned upon – I did not have the luxury of making wrong moves. I had to do everything right,” she recalled.
It was at university that Çamdereli first became interested in feminism. Although she did not agree with everything she read in the articles she first explored, Çamdereli said that it was her moderate Islamic upbringing that helped her reconcile the differences between these new perspectives and her own views.
“Some topics, such as sexual freedom and abortion, were major subjects of debate among feminist circles. But although an abortion may not be a choice for me, that does not mean that I should try to interfere with the choices of others,” she said.
Çamdereli also found feminist views on sexuality confusing at first, but notes that she found a way to accept them, even while not agreeing fully.
“When I first read about sexual freedom, I asked myself: how can this be possible? But then I told myself that sexual freedom does not mean that you have to be with more than one man. You can choose to become a monogamist. Being asexual is also a sexual freedom in itself,” she said.
At the same time, Çamdereli continued studying to deepen her knowledge of Islam and made friends in both feminist and traditional Muslim circles.
“That is my way of creating a balance,” she explained.
Recel has become another way of bridging the gap between feminism and traditional Islam, she continued.
A diverse array of contributors can use the platform to question the male-dominated interpretations of Islam and argue that the practice of using religion to support discrimination and oppression of women must end.
“There are many Muslim men who build their masculinity on deciding what women can and cannot do. We want to fight against that,” Çamdereli said.
One topic that reoccurs on the website is the marginalisation of women when it comes to Muslim prayer spaces and traditions that exclude or discriminate against them.
Recel guest author, Ayşe Özlem Ekşi, recently described being forbidden to attend the funeral of her grandfather.
“Some younger cousins and I went to the mosque to participate in the funeral salaah [prayers], but even before we entered the mosque’s yard, an old lady scorned us and said, ‘You shall not go, women do not participate in the funeral salaah. That is not acceptable,’” Ekşi wrote.
Ekşi and her female cousins went back home and sat on the staircase, looking at the mosque from a distance. The author found that experience both puzzling and humiliating.
“I don’t know what was worse – the fact that, as women, we could not participate in the prayer for my grandfather, that all the men there thought that we did not belong in the mosque on such occasion, or our feeble attempt to console each other that we were at least able to see the mosque where the men were praying for my grandfather,” Ekşi wrote.
Çamdereli is proud that the website has been accepted and supported by a wide audience, but notes that there have been many negative reactions to it as well.
“We received comments such as, ‘You are not Muslim enough,’ or ‘You degrade our women,’” Çamdereli said. “On the other hand, some women wrote to us and said, ‘I have felt alone all my life and now, for the first time, I see that I am no longer alone.’”