Ask the Women

Ken & Betty Frank – Turkey You may have seen the news items about the international Gallup Poll of Muslim women. The Gallup organization questioned people in nine predominantly Islamic countries, including Turkey, where we live, as part of an ongoing study since 2002.

By the way, Turks want you to know that theirs is a secular country unlike, say, Pakistan, which identifies itself as an Islamic Republic. But Turks will accept that they almost all call themselves Muslims.

You may have seen the news items about the international Gallup Poll of Muslim women. The Gallup organization questioned people in nine predominantly Islamic countries, including Turkey, where we live, as part of an ongoing study since 2002.

By the way, Turks want you to know that theirs is a secular country unlike, say, Pakistan, which identifies itself as an Islamic Republic. But Turks will accept that they almost all call themselves Muslims.

What did Gallup want from these people? Gallup wanted to find out how diplomatic policies and cultural influences are shaping opinions about Europe and America. We hear the same concern when we speak with Americans about our work in Turkey: “What do they think of us?”

Before we get to that question, let’s look at those news items about the international poll of Muslim women. The New York Times for June 8 drew its headline from something that the women didn’t say: “Muslim Women Don't See Themselves as Oppressed, Survey Finds.” As the Times article reported, there is a widespread view among Americans that sees Muslim women as victims. Their way of dressing is generally taken as evidence. That is, Muslim women who wear scarves or total body covering in public are assumed to be “oppressed” and “suffering from patriarchy,” while those who show their hair, arms, and legs in public are assumed to be “free” or “empowered.”

What’s new in this Gallup poll is evidence from Muslim women themselves. Gallup says the women could say whatever they wanted. The questions were open-ended, not multiple-choice. The result? The women reported their main concerns as a lack of unity among Muslim nations, violent extremism, and political and economic corruption. The way women dress in public was not listed on their agenda. This surprises those who think that Muslim women are mainly concerned with their supposed oppression. But it’s not a surprise to us, because the Gallup poll accurately reflects what we hear from our Turkish women friends who are covered.

Let’s now turn to the way another group looked at the same poll results. IslamOnline.com was more interested in how Muslim women in those nine countries looked at America. Again, these results also fit in with what we know of women’s attitudes in Turkey.

The IslamOnline.com headline for June 9 was, “Muslim women resent Western disrespect.” Although the poll results said that most Muslim women admire Western political freedom and gender equality, the majority of women also stated that they saw moral decay in Western societies, especially as seen in the Hollywood movies. They also felt their religion was being degraded and attacked, and that they were portrayed as inferior.

Is there any truth in these views? Do westerners disrespect Muslim women and consider them inferior? Suppose Gallup asked you the question, “What do you respect about the Islamic world?” How would you reply?

This leads us to the question of judging people whom we’ve never met but whom we may have read about or seen portrayed in the media. How much can we trust what we read, hear or see at second-hand? At some point everybody, Americans, Muslims, Christian, or otherwise, ends up saying, “We’re not like what you see in the movies.” But in the absence of anything else, we’re likely to act on rumor or shallow portrayals. And that would be treating others as objects.

People have always held stereotypes about those they don’t know at first hand. What’s new is that today’s instant images and video can reinforce prejudices and make them seem more real. Globalized media literally throw images of the world’s various communities in our face. People become objects of scorn, or disgust, or derision, or fear, to each other. The truth cannot emerge. It’s because of this striking role that one meaning of contemporary Christian mission is to struggle to know first-hand those who are from different communities.

If we are to be brothers and sisters to each other, we have insidious barriers to surmount. We must wade through the modern shallow pictures of each other and not accept them just because they come in color and real time. As followers of the teachings of Jesus, Christians should be taking the first steps to love both enemy and neighbor.

Peace,
Ken & Betty Frank

Ken & Betty Frank serve as missionaries with the American Board in Istanbul, Turkey. They share the job of General Secretary of the American Board. They also serve on the board of the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program (IIMP).