- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2006

Women hold the key to the debate over whether Christian and Muslim civilizations can coexist in harmony. Yet the tension between the East and West, between modernity and extreme traditionalism, that feeds radical Islam and Islamic revival is not going away any time soon. And it isn’t helped by the fact that ideas and impressions of Western culture and values are spread throughout the world largely through Hollywood.

Many in the Muslim world form their opinions about the West based on what they’ve seen in movies and television. It is time to talk about the values that the cultures shared. When it comes to dignity, honor and motherhood, there is no distinction between women of different religions, race and ethnicity.

Those values, however, are a question even in Turkey — a Western country whose population is majority Muslim and where an Islamic revival is taking place. One undeniable symbol of it is the increasing number of veiled women. It is crucially important to understand the social norms that lead women behind covers.

Last month, there were headlines in Turkey about Pinar Altug, a woman who won a beauty contest almost a decade ago and has since become an actress. She played characters that Turks admired, but in real life the ad hominem arguments she creates bring out a ferocious character. The insignificant debate she raised was about her attraction to younger men. Since the Prophet Mohammad’s first wife was 15 years older than him, Muslim women should feel comfortable dating younger men. But because Miss Altug is in her early 30s, Turks seem to be having difficulty accepting her attraction. It became a huge subject for debate, particularly as numerous famous Turkish couples have followed suit.

The real focus of the controversy, however, is that she cheated on her husband, dated another younger man and ended her marriage. She then cheated on that person to date someone even younger, and then someone even younger. Some Turks called Miss Altug’s actions “revolutionary.” In this patriarchal society, social norms tolerate men who cheat on their wives or girlfriends but don’t show the same attitude toward women. That said, there’s really nothing revolutionary about her behavior. It is plain unfaithfulness.

What’s more, we all fall into the same trap of loving the celebrities and talking about the details of their lives as if we know them. Paris Hilton and Pinar Altug are, in their spheres, incredibly talked-about women. However, that doesn’t mean that either of their societies embraces their lifestyles or their values. When Carl’s Jr., a burger franchise mainly on the West Coast, decided to hire Miss Hilton to sell its product, Bill O’Reilly, the famous conservative talk-show host, questioned the wisdom of the decision — especially when it was claimed that she is an “intriguing cultural icon.”

The bottom line is that for religious and reactionary Turks, Miss Altug represents Westernized women and the erosion of Turkish family values. Fathers and brothers pressure women in their families by saying that western values detract from women’s dignity and honor.

Meanwhile, there are extreme examples in ordinary life. Last month in Turkey, police rescued 24-year-old Meryem Sak after a month of torture by her boss, Mustafa Kivrik. When the police raided the house, they found her chained by the throat, and her hands were handcuffed to the bed. Miss Sak’s nails had been pulled out, and her toes and her pubic bone had been crushed with hammer. Why? Kivrik, with the consent of Miss Sak’s mother and brother, wanted to teach her a lesson about being a “good woman,” because she had male friends. He claimed there was evil inside her. In a sick twist, Miss Sak’s mother was having an affair with Kivrik. Now the courts will decide case, and it should be the liberated world’s demand that the judge examines the clash between Western and extreme values, as well.

This example does not represent the norm in Turkish society, despite the many pressures women face. Looking at this case as representing Turkish values would be like saying American men tend to murder their pregnant wives, as in the case of Scott and Laci Peterson.

It’s important to understand that the extreme examples in order to understand the society’s tendencies. They constitute evidence about the risks we take over values. The increasing number of women in Turkey who wear headscarves could be seen as a reaction to Western values and lifestyles, and as a way to argue that religiously pious Islamic women have higher morals and ethics than their Western counterparts. Free individuals can dress as they wish, but if dressing makes a statement about societal values, it is important to look at the issues at hand and really begin talking about how each “world” understands the other’s culture, values and priorities.

Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.

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