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Making Choices: Religion and Gender

The 1989 re-settlers were not as cordially welcomed by the local Turks as they were by the central authorities. The late 1980s-early 1990s were a period of stagnation in Turkish economy and the influx of so many migrants exacerbated the situation. The 1980s also witnessed intense inner migration from the underdeveloped rural regions in Turkey to the big cities, where re-settlers from Bulgaria chose to stay. Thus, many indigenous and Bulgarian-born Turks had to compete for the limited employment opportunities on the labour market. Re-settlers became indeed a menace for many of the inner migrants because they often surpassed them in educational credentials and professional qualifications, and offered cheaper labour.

There is a general assumption that under state communism the Turkish minority in Bulgaria lagged behind the majority in terms of education. This is, however, only relatively true. Under the impact of the communist policy for compulsory education and in line with the constructed image of the ‘socialist person’ who had good education, most of the grown-up re-settlers had graduated from high school and professional schools, while some, especially from among the urban residents, had college or university degrees. Their level of education was highly evaluated in Turkish society, where many of the newcomers continued with university training. In terms of the level of education re-settlers from Bulgaria were in sharp contrast to their immediate local neighbours. Another distinctive feature of the re-settlers was the equal educational level of men and women.

It was the working migrant women who became the major indicator of the distinction between local population and Bulgaria’s Turks. Their immediate neighbours disapprovingly called the working re-setter women ‘impure’ and excluded them in various ways from everyday social interaction. The negative image which re-settlers had among their local neighbours was depicted also through qualifications like ‘greedy’, ‘materialists’, who are interested only in economic prosperity (see also Parla 2007).

Why was the supposedly economic rivalry between locals and re-settlers dressed first and foremost in religious rhetoric? During their initial years in Turkey, re-settlers had to work hard and often had two jobs in order to make their living in the new place. All grown-up family members worked. Without any property, and starting their life in Turkey from scratch, they had no other choice but to work hard in an attempt to restore the standard of living they enjoyed before migration and to make up for their lost social status. Besides, it was only natural for women to go to work, because that was what they had done before migration, following the communist slogan of gender equality. Moreover, it was often easier for women to get employed in the new surroundings and during the initial years after migration women were the breadwinners in many families. While being busy to provide for the family, re-settlers rarely went to the mosque, or prayed, or publicly expressed any other sign of religiosity. This was again something imported from the society of origin, where being religious had been labelled as being backward and uneducated, and going to the mosque was persecuted. As a result, re-settlers tended to relate mosque attendance with having much free time and saw this practice as typical for elderly, retired people.

What re-settlers and locals had in common was their attachment to family. In Turkey, by the early 1990s the extended family was still the ideal among migrants from rural areas who were living in the big cities (White 2004). Similar was the situation among the Turks in Bulgaria. Those who did not migrate to cities shared houses with their parents. Those who migrated to cities kept close ties with their parents in the countryside, exchanging goods and services on a regular basis. The extended family pattern among the Turks of Bulgaria was preserved even during the mass migration. The huge number of re-settlers could be explained partly by the fact that entire extended families left. In Turkey they also settled together, at least in the beginning, and in many cases the housing arrangements were such that kept them together. Those who could afford separate housing still remained connected by family and kinship networks, even if their parents or siblings had moved back to Bulgaria (Elchinova 2005, 87-110).

Researchers of the family structure among working and lower-middle classes in Turkey invariably assert that even when relocated in urban settings these families remain patriarchal (Hann and Beller-Hann 2001; White 2004; Kejanlioglu and Tas 2009). In such families, the eldest man obtains the biggest authority, and work, spaces and patterns of behaviour are strictly divided along gender lines. Such a family relies on mutual complementarity of male and female roles and is ruled by the prohibition to switch roles. The traditional Turkish family is religious (White 2004, 44) and defined by certain moral categories. Leading among them are the categories of female modesty and purity, and male honour (Hann and Beller-Hann 2001), which are regulated by the principles of seclusion between the sexes and of strict control on women’s sexual behaviour. The patriarchal moral code puts much pressure on women, defining their chastity as the major prerequisite for family honour. From a patriarchal viewpoint, women cannot deal alone with such a responsibility and should rely for protection on the family. This protection has a price, which Deniz Kandiyoti (1988, 286) calls the ‘patriarchal bargain: protection in return to submissiveness and propriety’. Protection is guaranteed within the family and the immediate community, but women are susceptible to harassment when they are in public or go to work. That is why protection includes restriction of public activities and strict adherence to a dress code that covers all signs of femininity in women’s bodies (through the use of the veil and clothes that fully cover the body). Consequently, it is not surprising that according to traditional patriarchal family patterns informed by Islamic morality, working women are to be disapproved of. Such disapproval is evident in the discourses of exclusion against the re-settlers from Bulgaria produced by their immediate neighbours in Turkey.

Re-settler women are so negatively assessed probably because they fail to socialise in the social circle of their neighbours. They share their time mostly between their major spheres of engagement—family, work, the immediate re-settler community. Thus, the two neighbouring communities remain largely unfamiliar to each other, which explains the long-standing attitudes of mutual disapproval and accusation. The label ‘impure’ used against re-settler women does not encourage the local women to try to get closer to the newcomers and invite them to tea or for a chat. Neither do re-settler women invest time into such seemingly idle but socially bonding activities. The rejected re-settler women further distance themselves from the locals, describing them as ‘lazy’ and ‘idle’. Behind the religious and moral fayade they see reluctance to work and instead of piety they see hypocrisy and propensity to gossip. Such readings of one another’s behaviour keep the two groups of neighbours apart.

Traditional patriarchal family arrangements are also familiar to the Turks of Bulgaria. Indeed, in the Bulgarian context Turks and Muslims have become labels for conservative and outdated gender relations. This pattern was seriously shaken by the communist discourse and practice of female emancipation. The change has affected first and foremost women’s public participation. Already by the 1970s, most Muslim women were employed in towns or worked in the collectivised farms in villages (Bates 1994, 210). In the 1960s and 1970s, Muslim women in particular were the target of communist cultural enlightenment, including practices aiming at their education in modern household culture, as well as in fashion and popular culture (Neuburger 2004). This systemic propaganda, along with the spread of a uniform popular socialist supra-culture, led to the visible modernisation and secularisation of Bulgaria’s Turks. The majority of the 1989 re-settlers were active bearers of these modern worldviews and patterns of behaviour.

While in communist Bulgaria Turks had been stigmatised as backward and oppressive with regard to gender relations, after migration they found themselves amidst an entirely different discourse, where they were seen as ‘impure’, ‘immoral’ and ‘irreligious’ because of their improper gender behaviour. Switching between two opposite gender regimes (Parla 2009, 750-767) in the home and host societies was one of the greatest challenges they had to cope with in their attempts towards smooth integration in Turkish society. Gender regime can be defined as a widespread set of rules and norms regarding gender categories and patterns of behaviour, which are produced by different centres of power. In such a perspective, 1989 re-settlers had to comply with more than two overlapping or conflicting gender regimes in Turkey.

These different gender regimes were and still are very much tied down with the understanding of the role of religion in public life. One may argue that the patriarchal and religious evaluation of working women as ‘impure’ was not the most influential understanding of gender roles in Turkish society, especially when having in mind Kemalist ideology. Yet this ideology was not so influential among the working and lower middle classes, who used to be and, to a great extent, still are the immediate local neighbours of the re-settlers from Bulgaria.

The Kemalist gender regime is something in which re-settlers found refuge and legitimation for their own gender patterns. The emancipation of women is the corner stone of Turkish republicanism. Admittedly, the educated professional woman, liberated from the chains of patriarchy, is a central image of the republican iconography (Gole 1997, 86; Kejanlioglu and Tas 2009, 427). This woman is modern, Westernised and publicly active. Whether indeed republicanism managed to liberate women from patriarchy is another matter. Although Kemalism entered and transformed the private sphere, it had not changed the basic values of family life, according to which the most important roles a woman can play were those of a good wife and mother. To these, the secular national ideology added the new valued roles of a good professional and builder of the Republic.

Kemalism brought women out of the homes and made them equal professionals to men. It led to the formation of socially influential layers of educated women and shaped significantly the lifestyles of the educated middle and upper classes. From the outside, its modernising fervour is often considered to have equally affected the entire Turkish society, but in fact it is not quite so. Even though modern Turkey is very much Westernised and the cohorts of female professionals constantly expand, women’s employment is not so popular in all spheres of society. The reported figures about working women in Turkey were not very high at the time when the re-settlers arrived there. Between 1990 and 1997, the official employment rates of urban women in Turkey were under 15 per cent (White 2004, 75). The figures reveal that a lot of women actually lived according to the rules and norms of other, traditional gender regimes, which were deeply affected by religion and patriarchy.

There was yet another gender regime, both modern and Muslim, which gained publicity in the 1990s and was fostered by Islamism. This regime popularised a new image of the Muslim woman, which complied with Islamic teachings but was also adequate in the modern world. Islamism gave primacy to women’s education and encouraged female public activism, including working outside the home and becoming a professional. At the same time, it respected Muslim moral values and gender roles, while rendering them in a new light: women were no longer confined to traditionally defined roles and spaces; the feeling of shame was replaced by a sense of dignity and self-esteem (Kejanlioglu and Tas 2009, 432). Islamism defended women’s right to be modest and pious in public spaces (in opposition with nationalist ideology), as well as to be modern and beautiful despite their religious attachments. Islamism was not only a political movement. It gave birth to an entire popular culture which came to bridge the gap between Kemalism and traditionalism, thus gaining increasing popularity.

Living in an urban milieu, re-settlers have experienced the interaction and contradictions between these three influential gender regimes: traditional patriarchal, Kemalist and Islamist. However, their experience with each of them varies. They have faced most intensely the traditional Muslim attitudes and discourses by virtue of their re-location predominantly in areas populated by people from the lower end of the social ladder in Turkish society. They have been largely excluded by these discourses and they have not tried to change their behaviour in order to turn over the negative attitudes. They feel closer to the secular Kemalist discourses on gender, as these resemble their own background in socialist Bulgaria. But since these discourses are class-specific, only part of the re-settlers have been able to participate in them. Still, for the educated, professional migrant women at least partial socialisation based on these discourses has been available in the workplace. In modes of speech, appearances, views and manners they demonstrate affiliation to the secular, modern understanding of gender.

However, after more than 20 years spent in Turkey, very few re-settler women have developed close relations with local Turks from the middle and upper middle classes. The latter also have problems with the image of the female re-settlers. Their discontent is not expressed in religious terms but in moral ones: women from Bulgaria are described as goodlooking but greedy, too materialistic, very bossy and not supportive of their husbands. Again, as in the case of the lower class representatives, there is a hint about disrupted femininity, about a transgression of gender roles which undermines the balance and creates an unattractive image of the newcomers. Finally, as far as Islamist discourses on gender are concerned, re-settlers have remained at a distance. These discourses are deeply involved with religion, which is outside the immediate interest of the 1989 re-settlers from Bulgaria and their children and grandchildren.

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