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  • Dunya D. Cakir (a1)

Examining the writings of prominent Islamist women intellectuals in Turkey, including Fatma Barbarosoğlu, Cihan Aktaş, Yıldız Ramazanoğlu, and Nazife Şişman, this article explores the repercussions of their intellectual activism for how scholars understand and study piety politics. These Islamist women intellectuals, whose discourse and subjectivities have been translated into analytical categories by scholars of piety politics, contest the terms of their encounters with academics and, more broadly, the conversion of Muslim women into objects of research. Their writings shed light on the complex interpretative interplay between academic and lay discourse when the objects of scholarly study speak back to social scientists. I argue that these kinds of critical engagements between Islamist women intellectuals and social scientific discourses attest to the mobility and circularity of social scientific categories, which have infused and reconstituted Islamist debates in Turkey. Rather than uncritically endorse or dispute these intellectuals’ interpretations of social scientific accounts, I leverage their claims to underscore the social life of academic discourse and to promote an enriched vision of piety politics and reflexive methodology.

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Author's note: I thank the IJMES editors and the anonymous reviewers for their very useful comments on and criticisms of previous drafts of this article. I am especially indebted to Matthew Lepori, who provided encouragement and many helpful suggestions.

1 The authors situate themselves within (and write to) the world of İslamcılık (Islamism). Thus, I refer to them as İslamcı, which roughly translates as “Islamist.” This category, like any other, is a condensation of diverse ideas. To give a broader sense of what these authors mean, Ramazanoğlu defines İslamcılık as “placing revelation-centered enlightenment at the heart of life.” Ramazanoğlu, “İslamcılık Her Dem Yeni Bir Tahayyül,” Karar, 26 May 2016. Aktaş defines İslamcılık as “a project to reconstruct the world and save decaying humanity with the guidance of the Qurʾan.” Aktaş, Cihan, Bacı’dan Bayan'a: İslamcı Kadınların Kamusal Alan Tecrübesi (Istanbul: Kapı Yayınları, 2005), 235 . Elsewhere, she defines İslamcılık as a “critical project to discover, express, and advance the will to live an Islamic life in the modern world against the uniform lifestyle imposed by a secular modernization sanctioned by nation-states.” Cihan Aktaş, “İslamcılık, Bir Sınır Aşma Hareketi,” Timeturk, 30 August 2012, accessed 7 January 2015, For Cihan Aktaş, İslamcılık entails all efforts to revisit, rethink, and investigate the meanings and possibilities of Islam in a given historical context, and an İslamcı is someone who “strives to read the present from Islamic angles.” Aktaş, “İslamcılık; Konjonktürel Bir Dalga,” Dünya Bülteni, 26 May 2016, accessed 16 February 2017, For a precedent of this translation, see Çınar, Alev, Modernity, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey: Bodies, Places, and Time (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2005). Yılmaz, Zehra also uses “Islamist women writers” to refer to the intellectuals analyzed here. Yılmaz, Dişil Dindarlık: İslamcı Kadın Hareketinin Dönüşümü (Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 2015).

2 Giddens argues that this circulation forms a double hermeneutic—the idea that social scientific concepts and findings, grounded on social scientists’ interpretations of a preinterpreted world, routinely enter the social world they seek to explain and “reflexively restructure their subject matter.” Giddens, Anthony, The Consequences of Modernity (London: Polity Press, 1990), 43 .

3 Among others, see Rabinow, Paul, Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1977); Taylor, Charles, Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers 2 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Yanow, Dvora and Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine, eds., Interpretation and Method: Empirical Research Methods and the Interpretive Turn (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2006); and Wedeen, Lisa, “Ethnography as Interpretive Enterprise,” in Political Ethnography: What Immersion Contributes to the Study of Power, ed. Schatz, Edward (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

4 For ethnographic studies that attest to how transnational discourses about Muslim women imbue their social life and activism in the Middle East, see Deeb, Lara, “Piety Politics and the Role of a Transnational Feminist Analysis,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15 (2009): 112–26; and Abu-Lughod, Lila, “The Active Social Life of ‘Muslim Women's Rights’: A Plea for Ethnography, Not Polemic, with Cases from Egypt and Palestine,” Journal of Middle Eastern Women's Studies 6 (2010): 145 .

5 These authors have produced a range of literature, including novels, essays, newspaper columns, and academic research on themes such as Islamism, modernization, piety, the secular state, and women, among others. Barbarosoğlu and Şişman have graduate degrees in sociology (PhD and MA, respectively), while Ramazanoğlu obtained her formal training in pharmacy and Aktaş in architecture in Turkey.

6 My use of the term sociologization is distinct from others’ use of it to describe the blurring of boundaries between sociology and its neighboring disciplines such as anthropology, history, law, and philosophy. Scholars have often drawn on the term to evaluate disciplinary autonomy, either lamenting its decay or calling into question the division of knowledge within disciplinary boundaries.

7 Of course, all discourse is produced through categories and all categories are inevitably reductive generalizations (e.g., the concept of Islamism). But two things are notable in this case: the appropriation and contestation of scholarly discourses by these local intellectuals, and the methodological implications of their contestation.

8 In my reading, Islamist women intellectuals such as Şişman and Barbarosoğlu use the term ontological to refer to the transcendental connection between God and His subjects (kul) in every facet of human existence. Thus, the term encapsulates the divine imprint on all things created, including human beings, indicating their foundational bond to the Creator. Pious practices such as veiling or servicing Islam through activism seek to reinstitute the vertical relationship between humans and their Creator by subjecting human will directly and solely to divine laws. As such, pious practices are understood by the authors under study to express an ontological stance.

9 In developing the term sociologization, the paper shares an intellectual affinity with meta-analyses within sociology that engage in a reflexive study of Western social science in non-Western contexts. See Alatas, Syed Farid, “On the Indigenization of Academic Discourse,” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 18 (1993): 310–11; Alatas, Syed Farid, Alternative Discourses in Asian Social Science: Responses to Eurocentrism (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2006); Sinha, Vineeta, “Reconceptualizing the Social Sciences in Non-Western Settings: Challenges and Dilemmas,” Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science 25 (1997): 167–81; and Akiwowo, Akinsola, “Universalism and Indigenisation in Sociological Theory: Introduction,” International Sociology 3 (1988): 155–60. In calling for an indigenized social science, these scholars “problematize the epistemological and methodological underpinnings of the social sciences” and treat “non-western thought and cultural practices as sources of anthropological theorizing.” Alatas, Alternative Discourses, 85. In presenting Islamist women intellectuals’ critical reading of professional sociological discourse, this article similarly problematizes the positivist tradition and treats “native” knowledge production as a mode of social theorizing that generates valuable insights. However, the article parts with the latter literature in that it does not work toward an indigenized social science, but rather toward an enriched interpretivist understanding of Islamic activism.

10 Here I use the word “Islamic” synonymously with “relating to the religion of Islam,” a broader category that exceeds Islamist. I use the latter term to refer specifically to the actors and politics oriented to İslamcılık, a project to promote greater Islamic piety in social life.

11 I use the term lay here to indicate that these intellectuals are not professional academics. I do not intend to imply that they “lack” extensive knowledge of Islamist politics.

12 Giddens, Anthony, The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1984), 335 .

13 Giddens, Consequences of Modernity, 43.

14 Wedeen, Lisa, “Reflections on Ethnographic Work in Political Science,” Annual Review of Political Science 13 (2010): 260 .

15 For Ramazanoglu, feminism refers to the struggle against male hegemony in the name of women's emancipation, and is “removed from the Islamic understanding of men and women as companions fighting together against all injustice in a relationship of dynamic equity.” Ramazanoğlu, İşgal Kadınları, 44–45.

16 See Arat, Yeşim, Rethinking Islam and Liberal Democracy: Islamist Women in Turkish Politics (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2005); Saktanber, Ayşe, Living Islam: Women, Religion and the Politicization of Culture in Turkey (London: I.B.Tauris, 2002); Mahmood, Saba, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005); and Hafez, Sherine, An Islam of Her Own: Reconsidering Religion and Secularism in Women's Islamic Movements (New York: New York University Press, 2011).

17 For examples, see Badran, Margot, “Toward Islamic Feminisms: A Look at the Middle East,” in Hermeneutics and Honor in Islamic/ate Societies, ed. Afsarrudin, Asma (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), 159–87; Hale, Sondra, Gender Politics in Sudan: Islamism, Socialism, and the State (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997); Göle, Nilüfer, The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1996); and Deeb, “Piety Politics.”

18 Cindoğlu, Dilek and Zencirci, Gizem, “The Headscarf in Turkey in the Public and State Spheres,” Middle Eastern Studies 44 (2008): 791806 ; Arat, Yeşim, “Feminists, Islamists and Political Change in Turkey,” Political Psychology 19 (1998): 117–31; Özçetin, Hilal, “Breaking the Silence: The Religious Muslim Women's Movement in Turkey,” Journal of International Women's Studies 11 (2009): 106–19; Acar, Feride, “Türkiye'de İslamcı Hareket ve Kadın: Kadın Dergileri ve Bir Grup Üniversite Öğrencisi Üzerinde Bir İnceleme,” in 1980’ler Türkiye'sinde Kadın Bakış Açısından Kadınlar, ed. Tekeli, Şirin (Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 1993).

19 Göle, Forbidden Modern; Pusch, Barbara, “Stepping into the Public Sphere: The Rise of Islamist and Religious-Conservative Women's Non-Governmental Organizations,” in Studies on Political Culture in Contemporary Turkey, ed. Yerasimos, Stefanos et al. (Wurzburg: Orient-Institut, 2000); Çayır, Kenan, “İslamcı Bir Sivil Toplum Örgütü: Gökkuşağı Kadın Platformu,” in İslamın Yeni Kamusal Yüzleri, ed. Göle, Nilüfer (Istanbul: Metis Yayınları, 2000); and Marshall, Gül Aldıkaçtı, “Ideology, Progress, and Dialogue: A Comparison of Feminist and Islamist Women's Approaches to the Issues of Head Covering and Work in Turkey,” Gender and Society 19 (2005): 104–20.

20 Şişman, Nazife, Başörtüsü: Sınırsız Dünyanın Yeni Sınırı (Istanbul: Timaş Yayınları, 2011), 78 . All translations from Turkish are my own.

21 Ramazanoğlu, Yıldız, İşgal Kadınları: Emperyalist Feminizmle Uyanış Arasında (Istanbul: Kapi Yayınları, 2012), 52 .

22 The term has a contested status in scholarship. For some scholars, postfeminist discourses “actively draw on and invoke feminism . . . in order to suggest that equality is achieved, in order to install a whole repertoire of meanings which emphasize that it is no longer needed.” McRobbie, Angela, “Notes on Postfeminism and Popular Culture,” in All About the Girl: Culture, Power, and Identity, ed. Harris, A. (New York: Routledge, 2004), 4 . For others, it refers to an antifeminist backlash. Whelehan, Imelda, Feminist Thought: From the Second Wave to “Postfeminism” (New York: New York University Press, 1995). For still others, it refers to postfoundationalist efforts to deconstruct gender. Ringrose, Jessica, “Successful Girls? Complicating Post-Feminist, Neoliberal Discourses of Educational Achievement and Gender Equality,” Gender and Education 19 (2007): 471–89. By “post feminist,” I am referring to intellectual efforts that feed off academic feminist knowledge but that explicitly repudiate the feminist critique of hegemonic masculinity and dissociate their objectives from feminist goals of gender equality.

23 Şişman, Başörtüsü, 88.

24 Ramazanoğlu, İşgal Kadınları, 52.

25 Ibid., 51.

26 Şişman, Nazife and Barbarosoğlu, Fatma, Kamusal Alanda Başörtülüler (Istanbul: Timaş Yayınları, 2004), 2930 .

27 Şişman and Barbarosoğlu, Kamusal Alanda Başörtülüler, 72.

28 Ibid.

29 Şişman, Başörtüsü, 20.

30 Şişman and Barbarosoğlu, Kamusal Alanda Başörtülüler, 68.

31 Ibid., 62.

32 Ramazanoğlu, İşgal Kadınları, 166–67.

33 Ibid., 167.

34 Ibid., viii.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid., 166.

37 Here, she specifically cites Özdalga, Elizabeth, The Veiling Issue, Official Secularism and Popular Islam in Turkey (Richmond, UK: Curzon Press, 1998).

38 Ramazanoğlu, İşgal Kadınları, 166–67.

39 Hafez, An Islam of Her Own, 21.

40 Mualla Gülnaz, “Suyu Tersine Akıtanlar,” Birikim Dergisi 91 (1996): 70–73; quoted in Ramazanoğlu, İşgal Kadınları, 167–68.

41 Yeğenoğlu, Meyda, Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 107 .

42 Mona Abaza, “Academic Tourists Sight-Seeing the Arab Spring,” AhramOnline, 26 September 2011, accessed 7 January 2015,

43 Şişman, Başörtüsü, 141.

44 Ibid., 10.

45 Ibid., 9.

46 Aktaş, Bacı’dan Bayan'a, 199–200.

47 Ibid., 196.

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid., 202.

50 Ibid.

51 Sociologist Syed Farid Alatas argues that the post–World War II period in the postcolonial world has seen the proliferation of similar attempts at indigenizing social sciences (beyond Islamists’ intellectual agenda). These indigenization movements initiated a trend wherein “intellectuals in various non-Western societies engage in conscious efforts to develop bodies of social scientific knowledge in which theories and concepts are derived from their respective historical experiences and cultural practices.” Alatas, “On the Indigenization of Academic Discourse,” 310–11.

52 Giddens, Anthony, “A Reply to My Critics,” in Social Theory of Modern Societies: Anthony Giddens and His Critics, ed. Held, David and Thompson, John B. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 251 .

53 Şişman, Başörtüsü, 15.

54 For Şişman and Barbarosoğlu, piety belongs to the realm of the ontological as the pious seek to reinstate the foundational bond between the individual and the Creator. The authors understand this divine imprint on human existence to be absent in the modernist humanism of Enlightenment thought, the origin of the modern social sciences.

55 Göle, Forbidden Modern, 5.

56 Hilal Kaplan, “‘Modern Mahrem'den ‘İslami Teroristler'e,” Yeni Şafak, 9 April 2012, accessed 14 December 2014,

57 Şişman, Nazife and Barbarosoğlu, Fatma, Kamusal Alanda Başörtülüler (Istanbul: Timaş Yayınları, 2004), 44 .

58 Ibid., 49.

59 Göle, Nilüfer, “The Voluntary Adoption of Islamic Stigma Symbols,” Social Research 70 (2003): 809–28; quoted in Şişman, Başörtüsü, 37.

60 Şişman, Başörtüsü, 88.

61 Şişman and Barbarosoğlu, Kamusal Alanda Başörtülüler, 45.

62 Ibid.

63 Aktaş, Bacı’dan Bayan'a, 228.

64 Şişman, Başörtüsü, 21.

65 Ibid., 24.

66 Ibid., 26.

67 Şişman and Barbarosoğlu, Kamusal Alanda Başörtülüler, 59.

68 My translation of hidayet is borrowed from Saktanber, Ayşe and Çorbacıoğlu, Gül, “Veiling and Headscarf-Skepticism in Turkey,” Social Politics 15 (2008): 522 .

69 Barbarosoğlu is explicitly referring to Atasoy, Nasıl Örtündüler? (Istanbul: Nesil Yayınları, 2004).

70 Şişman and Barbarosoğlu, Kamusal Alanda Başörtülüler, 60.

71 Şişman, Başörtüsü, 140.

72 She references Mahmood, Politics of Piety as a notable example of recent anthropological literature that challenges the reductive, instrumentalist approach to piety.

73 Aktaş, Bacı’dan Bayan'a, 30. Here, Aktaş implicitly references sociological descriptions of Islamic revivalism that explain the latter in terms of contemporary crises of modernization and modernity, and more specifically as a reaction to failed or arrested development in the postcolonial Muslim world.

74 In an illuminating essay, Dipesh Chakrabarty differentiates between secular subjects (i.e., humanities and social science disciplines) and religion as “two systems of thought,” the former representing some kind of generality and universality through analytical categories, and the latter representing particularity and difference. In seeking to understand religious practices, the secular, disenchanted language of social sciences translates the second system of thought into itself, which amounts to “an act of translating into a universal language what belongs to a field of differences.” Chakrabarty, Dipesh, “The Time of History and the Times of Gods,” in The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, eds. Lowe, Lisa and Lloyd, David (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997), 39 .

75 Ibid., 40.

76 Ibid., 39–45.

77 Şişman does not reject the historicity of religious interpretation and practices, including veiling, but instead asks the reader to consider the continuing modes of religiosity ignored in scholarly analyses of religious revivalism. Şişman, Başörtüsü, 108.

78 Ibid., 111.

79 Ibid., 113.

80 Şişman and Barbarosoğlu, Kamusal Alanda Başörtülüler, 51.

81 Şişman, Başörtüsü, 113.

82 Giddens, Constitution of Society, xxxii.

83 Euben, Roxanne, “Comparative Political Theory: An Islamic Fundamentalist Critique of Rationalism,” Journal of Politics 59 (1997): 53 .

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