Unresolved Concerns of Women in the Modern Age: How Does the Gülen Movement Contribute to the Women Question?

Many women in the modern age are familiar with feeling torn between traditional expectations of women and the expectations of the modern working conditions. While traditional expectations require women to be good mothers and housewives, modern impulses put little stress on family roles, compared to the emphasis they make on social roles of individuals.

Women's traditional in-home activities include taking care of children, cooking good meals, cleaning and readying the house for guests; and these activities occupy a great deal of their time. Considering that traditional roles of women, compared to men's roles, do not bring money or prestige in the society, there have been reactions that deemed traditional women roles to be the source of men-women inequality. Women looked for appreciation for what they did, and this brought about women employment in good numbers.

The modern equality answer ideally offered that men and women share private roles such as raising children and doing the housework equally so that women can have equal voice in the public space. And in order to prove gender equality, women were pushed into the same working conditions with men. However, this solution was not very practical in reality since women were biologically and emotionally different. Women were bounded to bear children by their biology, and their physiology and psychology were affected by this reality.

While modern employment conditions seemed to have ensured gender equality by providing same working conditions for males and females; these conditions, in practice, turned out to work well only for men's adaptation. Working conditions were insufficient for multitasking women and overburdened women since women were still expected to shoulder in-home traditional roles much or less. Women feel physically and emotionally more attached to their children, but when they wanted to extend their commitments to the public realm for social satisfaction, they were- and they still are- faced with either harsh or long hours of modern employment. If they choose not to work, they feel confined at home doing in-home activities all their time. There are not yet notable alternatives for women to be effective in public and private life both. Women have to choose either to be full-time mothers or full-time workers, if they want professional jobs.

For Fethullah Gülen, while imprisoning women at home and confining them in the kitchen among 'dirty dishes' oppressed and degraded them; some modern reactions to women's traditional roles have also gone extreme, oppressing and degrading women in another way. For the sake of proving equality with men, women were pushed into the hard labor force; and in order to demonstrate that women are not machines, some responses rejected the idea of marriage and having and bearing children. If women are not able to bear children that they wish for and if they are not provided a safe environment to raise them; it is as equally unbecoming and unnatural as seeing women as merely child-bearing objects, says Gülen.[1] How safe, one urges to ask, is the modern environment to provide women with a possible child-raising environment, when it forces women to leave their children at day-cares full-time?

Gülen's ideas on women's role in private and public spaces offer an avenue between two extremes, both of which, in Gülen's thinking, are oppressive and ignorant of women's unique qualities. Gülen invites us to give ear to women's primordial nature, physical potentials, spiritual worlds, psychological structures- which are different from men's- when talking about their roles that can bring satisfaction to society and women both. It has been people's cultural heritage that interpreted women's roles confined at home and pushed women into a more restricted area day by day. Gülen believes that "women are responsible for carrying out the duties that befall them in every area of society as long as these duties do not conflict with their primordial nature or with observing religious requirements"[2]. Still, in his thinking, exempting women from certain charges like military services and not making women liable for everything men are responsible for is not a disgrace towards women; rather it is Islam's recognition of women's needs and demands.

The modern dilemmas that women suffer from are the result of a lack of recognition of women's multi-roles in their lifetimes. Women, with their various modernday syndromes, exhibit that they are not at ease with the modern solution of working 'equality'. There are working women syndrome, sacred mother syndrome, super women syndrome and even non-working women syndrome in the modern times. While working mothers feel guilty about being non-present with their children most of the time, nonworking mothers feel useless at home, especially when mothering is not given its due value in our modern society.

Considering these modern dilemmas of women, my paper examines how Gülen's ideas offer solution to women's aforementioned problems. Interviewing 11 women in the Gülen community, I try to bring answers to the following questions: how efficient is the modern working settings for women's expectations? How much of Gülen's ideas on women's role are effectively put into practice in institutions that follow Gülen's teachings? Is it ever possible to realize Gülen's ideals in today's modern settings, which ignore women's dilemmas? How much satisfaction do working women in the community have in their familial and social roles? Does it make any difference to work at communities' institutions or at any other places? Does being a member of the community help them feel content about women's multi-roles?

Traditional Gender Roles and the Assumption of the Modern Settings: Traditional Women Roles are Inferior

It will be helpful to look at Muhammad Akram Nadwi's[3] analysis of the feminist critique for a better approach to gender roles. Feminist critique, for Nadwi, criticizes different gender roles by asking that "if men can do X, why can't women do X?" Nadwi proposes that the format of this question is misleading in three ways[4] and asking this question the reverse way, "if women can do X, why can't men do X?" will face up to the modern mentality that takes it as given that the traditional domain of women is inferior.[5]

The modern popular culture is very influential in this assumption on people of our age. Even among women, who believe in the religious value of mothering their children, it is not rare to hear that "they regret to say that they might have to raise their children, if no opportunity in working field shows up." Raising children, even unconsciously at times, is regarded to be the job of the most vulgar woman, the uneducated; therefore, for educated women, taking care of children should be the last resort. Nadwi tells about the modern mentality as follows:

"…running a home, bringing up children are mental chores, unpaid in money and prestige, not a calling. So women should strive to take responsibility in the traditionally male domain of earning a living and competing economic and political power, and the domain of family life- however important it may be- must be squeezed in somewhere somehow between the public domain commitments of the man and woman."[6]

In order to free the questioner from the modern frame that deems some gender roles superior to others, we ask the question the other way; "If women can do X, why men can't do X?". Rather than privileging what men do over what women do, let's look at it from a different perspective: why women can do X, while men can't do X?

Contrary to the popular culture of our day, ensuring a peaceful and pleasant atmosphere in house and growing children in a homely environment holds great importance in Islam, since it will lead people to grow healthy generations. This is supported by prophetic hadith of the Prophet. Although ensuring such pleasant environment at home is not as prestigious as having a career in the modern social life, Islam's consideration of the importance of one's activities is different than the modern understanding. The modern question that asks "if men do X, why cannot women do X", as Nadwi suggests, "gives primacy to agency as the definitive measure of the value of being human. What counts is what can do, not what one can be." Islamic understanding is not present-life focused, rather it gives due diligence to whatever roles leads to human happiness in both lives.

In his support for ontological equality of men and women, Fethullah Gülen follows a rather realistic perspective that men and women are different creatures as opposed to the idea that men and women are the same. He believes that the Qur'an expresses difference of men and women's capacities. This is the objective reality of their creation. Yet this difference is a reason neither for men nor for women to be looked down upon.[7] Gülen analyses different male roles that the Qur'an defines in relation to marriage. In Gülen's understanding of the Qur'anic emphasis on marriage, its encouragement for family life is one significant factor to specify some gender roles. He says that the Qur'an views marriage as a serious commitment, a covenant between the husband and the wife. And in order to keep trust between spouses and to maintain the integrity in marriages, the Qur'an lays down binding marriage regulations, and it reminds couples their duties to one another. "it views divorce, which God dislikes, as the last resort when reconciliation becomes impossible. In order to strengthen the ties of marriage, the Qur'an places more responsibility upon the husband's shoulders... Considering some qualities of women and men, Islam has developed certain legal prescriptions such as women are exempted from certain charges: military services, going to war, taking care of the financial obligations of a family and herself…"[8] Men's physical strength can allow them to work under hard conditions unceasingly. But women physiology restricts women's activities at times due to monthly periods and pregnancy. Women are stronger in their intuition and compassion in general and this is why bearing children is more appropriate for women, says Gülen. Deeming gender difference as a complementary factor for each gender, Gülen is not in favor of the thinking that "the differences given in nature, if enhanced by law and custom, must lead to injustices necessarily; that those injustices should and can be reduced by social, legal and biological engineering."[9] On the contrary, gender differences should be accepted and recognized in order to keep the dignity of women and to do justice to them.

When we now question, why can't men do what women can do? Why men cannot be exempted from military services, and why men cannot be the best for 'mothering' children, Gülen's response is this: "When a child cries at midnight, sometimes fathers change their rooms to ignore it. Yet mothers leave their beds hastily to comfort their babies, and sometimes mothers spend the whole night next to them. Mothers have frantic love for their children."[10] Gülen states:

"Not making women liable for everything men are responsible for is an expression of Islam's kind approach towards women. This manifestation of Divine Mercy is based on the following essential: Women are generally more compassionate and more merciful than men. As a compliment to her vast compassion, the All-Merciful Creator who is the sole owner of true mercy honored women with a different aspect of His blessings and freed her from certain liabilities."[11]

It is narrated that once a woman companion of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him), Asma bint Yazeed asked him about different gender roles and if these difference in roles would bring about equal reward in afterlife. The narration reads:

"Asma said: May my father and mother be sacrificed for you, O messenger of God- I am a representative of the women to you. God has sent you as a Messenger to all men and women. So we have believed in you and your God. Now, we women are confined to the houses and bearing your children. You men (in what has been commanded to you) have been preferred over us by the jumu'ah and other congregational prayers, visiting the sick, attending funerals, doing hajj after hajj and more than that the jihad in the path of God. When you men go for hajj or 'umrah or jihad, we look after your property, we weave your clothes, and bring up your children. Will we share with you in the reward?" The Prophet praised Asma bint Yazid for asking this question and answered: "understand o woman, and tell the other women behind you that a wife's looking after her husband, seeking his contentment and going along with his assent is equal to all that (i.e. all that the religion has commanded to the men)"[12]

The Prophet's encouragement of women on roles such as caring for their husbands and children should not be understood as definitive and only roles for women. Rather, the Prophet was aware of what women were bounded with at homes, and instead of belittling their actions at home; he showed them the great rewards that they can get from such roles. He said: "Paradise lies beneath the feet of mothers." To the question once posed to the Prophet three times in sequence, "to whom I should be dutiful?", he deliberately replied three times that it is one's mother that one should be dutiful establishing the authority of mothers over fathers.

According to Fethullah Gülen, the fact that there are certain duties of men that women are not charged with does not mean that Islam deprives women of certain things. Rather, although Islam does not hold women responsible for some services such as fasting or praying at certain times, or undertaking paid work to support themselves or their family, "Islam does not prevent any woman's voluntary attendance at a congregational prayer, such as Friday Prayer. In the reference books on the sayings and life of the Prophet there are reports that women attended different congregational prayers including the prayer for rain."[13] The Prophet himself commanded girls and adult women to participate in public assemblies where knowledge of the religion would be presented.[14] Mothers were motivated to bring their children to the mosque and the Prophet would shorten the recitation during the prayer, if he heard a baby cry, in order to release mother's distress and distraction.[15] Gülen wishes to remind this neglected, undervalued and looked down upon roles of mothers by the modern culture by stating that "women train and educate children, and establish order, peace, and harmony in the home. Women are the first teachers in the school of humanity." So while there is much emphasis on the value of women's traditional roles in Gülen's understanding of Islam, "limiting the life of a woman or narrowing their fields of activity"[16] is not an Islamic application at all. In the formative period of Islam, women were not banned from their full participation in social life, in teaching, in administrative works and even in engaging in battles against their wish. While being an authority in hadith narration, a jurist and a scholar over many men, A'isha, the Prophet's wife, was also one leading figure in a battle.[17] She was not an exceptional figure in regard to women's taking present and active roles during and after Prophet's life. An example to the respect shown for women's intellectual ability is the appointment of `Umar, the second caliph, and one of the greatest of the Prophet's Companions, of a woman as inspector of the market in Madinah.[18] Professor Muhammad Akram Nadwi has recently devoted a forty-volume Arabic biographical dictionary of 8000 Muslim women scholars in just one field of the Islamic sciences, namely the hadith, the study of the words and deeds, the teaching and practice, of the Prophet.

3- Women in Syndromes

According to a new Pew Research Center Survey, fewer women in the United States want to have full time jobs. Full-time working mothers "give themselves slightly lower ratings as parents, on average, than do at-home mothers or mothers employed part-time."[19] A study published just very recently, in August 6, 2008, by the University of Cambridge suggests that "in Britain and the United States there is "mounting concern" that women who play a full and equal role in the workforce do so at the expense of family life."[20] The quality of family life is in decline in Europe and this Cambridge study, as The Independent informs, questions whether this has been related to the excessively hardworking parents.

"It has long been taboo to ask whether the unhappiness of British children compared with their Continental counterparts, and the relatively high incidence of antisocial behavior here, might somehow be related to the long hours worked by British parents. But the question should be asked – and answered."[21]

While women employment has much longer history in Europe to allow analyzing the long-term costs of full-time working parents on the society and the children, it is not the case in all societies. It is rather early to carry out such studies in cultures such as Turkey since the women employment can be still considered recent to fairly understand the long-term consequences of it.

The modern syndromes of women occur when women work full-time while having children and when women do not work at all and they stay at home full-time. Some women do not want to lose the prestige and the economic independence they gained or wished to gain through their education and their work before marriage. Raising children becomes a threat to their career. Yet when they choose to work full-time they suffer from a feeling of guilt as they leave their children at day-cares for most of their time. While women are pushed into frustration with these long hours of employment, it is not to be offered to them as an alternative not to work at all. What addresses to the need of modern women effectively is the combination of work and bringing up children.

4. Women in the Gülen Movement: Is there a way to Get it All?

As we already mentioned above, Gülen believes that women, like men, can have certain jobs as far as their physiology and psychology are taken into consideration. Therefore, he says, "just as an understanding which imprisons women at home and takes them completely away from social life is absolutely incorrect according to Islam, likewise, depriving women of financial support, preventing them from bearing and raising children in security, and forcing women into the labor force to do uncongenial work is also oppressive." A safe environment that can allow women to raise children, while also engaging them in the social life without being overburdened seems to be ideal for Gülen. Yet how much of this ideal can be presented to the modern women is a big question and my paper specifically questions whether women in the Gülen community has a better access to this ideal compared to others?

The data presented in this work is derived from my personal interviews with 11 active women in the Gülen community who live in the United States. Some of these women work in Gülen-inspired institutions, some in other places and some do not work professionally. All these women are married and have children and they all share having squeezed by modern time's women dilemmas.

All the women in the Gülen community that I interviewed agreed that the modern working conditions create "role conflicts" for women, especially when they come from a culture such as Turkish. A respondent stated that "female birds usually make the nest and coming from the Turkish culture, women in the community have higher expectations from themselves to be good mothers and good housewives even if they work outside home." Turkish women do not feel content with their men's taking care of the house. They believe that men are not capable of readying the house for guests or just matching the colors of clothes of a child, for example. This is why they want to organize and decorate their houses according to their own taste; this has been a unique cultural heritage to continue. Yet they also realize that they need to contribute to the outer world, be a part of it in order to feel discharged, to feel released from their tensions. Some interviewees emphasized the fact that women can be beneficial to their children only when they feel at peace. If they do not feel all right, then the time they spend with their children is of poor quality. One informant said: "I felt that I could be only discharged through an outside work, so I did work. But I sadly accept that my child loves his grandmother much more than me now, as he says it, since it was his grandmother who raised him, not me." She believes that inside and outside work needs to be balanced for healthy mothers and healthy generations.

Most of the women who have had an experience of work and who are currently working agree that there is a bad feeling of guilt over their children that do not leave them as time passes. "Although I do not see a big threat to their physiology when placed in day-cares, I am not sure that children's emotional and spiritual being is in safe hands at day-cares," stated another respondent.

This problem of modern working settings is hard to overcome, and one respondent said it would be a utopia to change this structure even by institutions founded as Gülen-inspired. "I tried working part-time but I did not feel any belonging to my job. One should embrace her job for better work," one interviewee declared. However, it would be a great chance for women, if they knew that they would be easily hired again if they choose to work after years of motherhood they spend with their children. And if there would ever be a way to answer women's dilemmas, it would be through increased number of opportunities for women to work part-time, most women agreed, so that they can combine their work in and outside the house.

Women in general emphasized that the volunteer activities they do in the community gives them credibility, appreciation and prestige as well as leaving a good feeling in their hearts as they help others. One informant, who has a child and has just started a job a couple of months ago stated that when she felt useless at home, the voluntary activities helped her to overcome her negative feelings about herself. But still, living in the United States, she wanted to learn English and become a part of the bigger society for social satisfaction. She now feels that her parenting is worsened due to her job, yet the way she continues doing her job is an interesting one: "I believe that the reason why I do this job should not be for material gain. I already make a sacrifice for this job by leaving my child mother-less when I am at work. Since I want to believe that I do not make this sacrifice for material gain, I have avoided to spend even a dollar of the money I earned so far."

Women who have worked and who are working in Gülen-inspired institutions talked about its one big positive effect on them as they believe that their job is not meant to gain material benefits only. They had the higher purpose of serving the humanity in their minds when they had to leave their children at day-cares. One woman who had experience in working Gülen-inspired institutions in Turkey said that Gülen-inspired institutions generally provide a day-care in their buildings so that mothers can see their children in almost every hour. This gives more courage to women to work in these institutions. She says that the schedule of mothers was organized carefully to give them an hour off in every two-three hours, so that they can breast-feed their children. She remembers that once the first day of their kid's schools, mothers were allowed not to work to be with their children on that day. She still adds, however, these kinds of "thoughtful actions" have to be done systematically in Gülen-inspired institutions since they all believe in the importance of taking good care of children. Otherwise, these positive actions can be only limited to personal initiatives.

One respondent gave a significant example of a transparent glass that women are hit by when they try to jump up to do things that men have easier access. This idea that she read about in the college claims that both men and women put effort in order to get what they want, but there is a transparent glass that only women are hit by and this makes it harder for them to get what men get. The glass is transparent since the modern society does not recognize that women have multi-roles, which requires women to put much more effort than men in order to get the same positions in their lives. Therefore, presenting equal opportunities for men and women, the modern working conditions are not realistic and they miss the balance. Men and women have to see this glass as a real one; it should no longer be a transparent glass. Men should no longer deem women's home tasks as insignificant activities.[22] They have to accept that without someone doing home tasks; the society will be under a big threat.

Respondents[23] emphasized the lack of emphasis in the modern world on the significance of a woman's family role, which is to provide a homely environment for family and mothering the children. "You feel weary even if you do not work outside due to in-home responsibilities. But when you work at home, your job is nameless and you work for a 'no-named institution', you do not get the appreciation that you get when you have a prestigious job." They say that while they embraced Gülen's teachings on the importance of one's feelings to live and sacrifice for others, they are also modernity's children and they look for appreciation. They want to have social status to be respected in the society: "Otherwise you are deemed to be an uneducated woman who has no choice but to look after her children." Therefore at times when women do not have a chance to work, some women in the community, too, have suffered from 'identity problems' and 'non-working women syndrome.' Some women stated that they are well aware of Gülen's teachings on the importance of family values and that there is an exchange of ideas among women in the community on how to raise ethical and faithful children. A good number of women still declared that the existing emphasis should be re-emphasized much more often so that men and women, both, can understand the value of their family roles and they can overcome some deep-rooted and negative cultural understandings on gender relationships.

Looking after one's children has not yet been a conscious sacrifice for women in the Turkish society due to the good number of unqualified women population until very recently. In the minds of some Turkish women, a woman who takes care of her children at home does it since she has no alternative. This has been the case for their mothers. So then taking care of your children at home at the expense of not working does not sound like a conscious choice for some of them.

One informant talked about the hardship of disciplining her life without a job. While she was able to get up early as she worked, it has been hard to do so since she stays at home with her baby. One interesting suggestion from a respondent was that men and women in the community should be given seminars on the importance of family roles they should play. She said these seminars should award their attendees with some serious certificates. This way people would take their couples' and their roles in the family more seriously.

Considering that their men have less expectations of housework and that they generally share some responsibility in the house, women in Gülen community believe that their men "are already transformed compared to their traditional Turkish counterparts." One of the respondents said that her husband took care of their children by staying at home while she studied through her Ph.D. Women say that, being a part of the community, they can talk about their rights more freely to their husbands. Yet still, for women, men have a long way to go to truly appreciate the significance of women's work. Women emphasized the satisfaction they get when they are appreciated by their husbands, and this being a very important factor in keeping the integrity of their marriages. A woman said: "Appreciation of woman by her husband is that her husband is kind to ask her volition if she can host guests at his will, rather than giving imperatives to women to cook and to ready the house for guests. Men should learn that women's is a major job, not something to be taken for granted."

That said, being married to someone in the Gülen community, women agreed to one of the respondents' stress on their feeling safer, more independent and self-esteemed compared to women who are in fear of being cheated by their husbands. These women told that since there is much emphasis on God consciousness in the community, women do not fear that their husbands would be unfaithful to them. This gives them courage and confidence in themselves: "When I see a more beautiful woman than myself I do not think that my credibility in my husband's eyes is under a threat. He never compares me to another woman." Women believed that this appreciation they get from their husbands is something that works against modern women syndromes.

Problems of women are not to be understood with a manly mindset. Modern applications that present work equal work opportunities for both genders are far from practical and safe answers for women, who differ from men in their expectations from work conditions. As one of the respondents talked about her need to share her "love" in whatever job she is doing, she expressed a very womanly expectation from a working environment. This being the case, Gülen's thought on women's placement for jobs that suit their nature sounds very parallel to the demands of women in the Gülen community I had interviews with. Although Gülen's ideas went in conformity with these women's expectations, women put much emphasis on putting these ideas into practical applications. While these women see that progressive and ethical behaviors are shaping men in the community much more than other men in the Turkish society, they are not hesitant to ask for more appreciation for their roles and for more help in sharing the responsibility of the house work that can help them go through modern women dilemmas.


[1] Fethullah Gülen, "Women Confined and Mistreated" http://www.fethullahgulen.org/recent-articles/2897-women-confined-and-mistreated.html

[2] Gülen, "Women Confined and Mistreated" http://www.fethullahgulen.org/recent-articles/2897-womenconfined-and-mistreated.html

[3] Muhammad Akram Nadwi is a hadith scholar who studied and taught Shari'a at the prestigious Nadwatul 'Ulama (India). As a leading scholar steeped in traditional Islamic learning and in modern academia, Shaykh Akram is currently a research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Oxford.

[4] I will unfold these three ways in the flow of the paper.

[5] Nadwi, Muhammad Akram, "al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam", (London: Interface Publications, 2007), xv.

[6] Nadwi, "al-Muhaddithat", xv.

[7] Zeki Saritoprak and Ali Unal, An Interview with Fethullah Gülen, in "The Muslim World", volume 95, Number3, July 2005, 464.

[8] Zeki Saritoprak and Ali Unal, 464.

[9] Nadwi, "al-Muhaddithat", xviii.

[10] http://tr.fgulen.com/content/view/582/146/ Gülen narrates an anonymous story here, which furthers that a child once cuts and chops his mother's body. When he happens to cut her lung, he cuts his finger by mistake. Out of anguish and pain his mouth unconsciously and immediately utters words of "my mom!" and his mother responds with compassion to his pain: "my dear!" and hugs this cut finger compassionately.

[11] Gülen, "Women Confined and Mistreated" http://www.fethullahgulen.org/recent-articles/2897-womenconfined-and-mistreated.html

[12] Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, musnad al-nisa. Ibn Al-Athir (d.630), Usd al-ghabah, vii. 17-18. Cited in Nadwi, "al-Muhaddithat", 60.

[13] "Women Confined and Mistreated" http://www.fethullahgulen.org/recent-articles/2897-womenconfined-and-mistreated.html

[14] Nadwi, "al-Muhaddithat", 40.

[15] Ibid.,145.

[16] Cited in Bernadette Andrea: Women and Their Rights: Fethullah Gülen's Gloss on Lady Montagu's "Embassy" to the Ottoman Empire, in "Muslim Citizens of the Globalized World", edited by Robert Hunt and Yuksel A. Aslandogan, (New Jersey: The Light, 2006), 142.

[17] Andrea, 144.

[18] Muhammad Akram Nadwi, al-Muhaddithat: Notes for a talk on the women scholars of hadith. http://interfacepublications.com/images/pdf/AKRAM_Article2.pdf


[20] "Excessively Hard-working Families", The Independent, August 6, 2008. http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/leading-articles/leading-article-excessively-hardworking-families-886113.html

[21] "Excessively Hard-working Families", The Independent, August 6, 2008. http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/leading-articles/leading-article-excessively-hardworking-families-886113.html

[22] She insisted that changing a baby's diaper, for example, should not be regarded as a woman's job because of the belief that women are engaged with such low- value tasks at home. Men should give up their pride and show appreciation of their women's activities by personally engaging in such 'low-value' activities.

[23] Although ten women respondents' views give us idea about the Gülen community, it is still important to remember that they do not statistically represent the view points of all the women participants in the movement.

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