Sat, 05 Feb 2000

Muslims must make sure Kuris did not die in vain

By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON (JP): I have lived in Turkey, and I like the place. I even speak Turkish. But when I first heard about what happened to Konca Kuris, I just didn't know what to say.

Konca Kuris was a 38-year-old mother of five who lived in the south-coast Turkish city of Mersin. She was a devout Muslim, an intellectually inquiring woman, and a feminist writer (none of which are contradictory things to be), who devoted much of her writing to proving that true Islam does not restrict women's rights. Rather, it guarantees them.

In her books and articles and on television, she argued that early Muslim societies, moulded by the Middle Eastern patriarchal tradition, perverted Islamic teachings in ways that victimized women. The requirement that women must cover their heads, for example, is not "Islamic" at all. It had been the custom for "respectable" women in all the classical societies of the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean, from Mesopotamia and Assyria to Greece and Rome. Those who first became Muslims over 1300 years ago just imported the rule into their new faith.

More importantly, Kuris argued against the segregation of men and women. From public prayers to public schools, females are systematically separated from males in most Muslim countries -- and separate is not equal. She even dared to suggest that public prayers in Turkey should be said in Turkish rather that in Arabic, a language that the overwhelming majority of Turks can neither speak nor read.

Legally, Turkey is an even more secular country than the United States: no "In God We Trust" mottos on the money here. Lots of people in Turkey think the same thoughts as Konca Kuris, and even discuss them out loud. But it can still be risky to develop a high media profile on these issues.

Kuris got her share of death threats. "I could die many times over," she told her husband two years ago. "But these people want to play God; no one has the right to do that."

She did die many times over. She was kidnapped in 1998, and they didn't find her until two weeks ago. Her body was found rotting in a shallow grave, so badly mutilated by the torture she had undergone that they could only identify her by her dental records.

She was found after the Turkish authorities finally moved against a fundamentalist group called Hizbollah (no relation to the Lebanese group of the same name) that seeks an "Islamic" revolution in Turkey. The group's military leader was shot dead in Istanbul later in January by police, and since then they have dug up 33 of the hundreds of people Hizbollah has kidnapped and killed in the past dozen years.

In addition to Konca Kuris's body, they also found a videotape shot by her captors, documenting the 38 days during which they tortured her mercilessly, trying to make her confess to being an apostate, an anti-Muslim, and a foreign pawn, before they murdered her. Nur iginde yatsin. May she rest in peace.

But what can we say to those who remain alive? To good Muslims who are appalled by what is done in their name, to non-Muslims of good will who strive to resist the anti-Muslim undertones in so much that is reported in the mass media, above all to women everywhere who suspect that among the world's great religions it is Islam that has the greatest difficulty in accepting women as equals?

Let us start by rephrasing that last question. It is not "Islam", but many Muslim men, that have such difficulty in accepting women as equals. That may have more to do with their cultural heritage than their religion. Islam, like Christianity, is a religion with Middle Eastern roots -- their founders were born less than 300 miles apart -- and among the world's major civilizations the Middle Eastern ones have always been the most extravagantly male-dominant and anti-female.

The rules for female behavior espoused by the more repressive branches of both faiths stem from ancient Middle Eastern social values, not from the teachings of Jesus or Mohammad. None of the traditional mass civilizations could be called female-friendly (Confucius did not encourage young women to pursue careers either), but few others came up with phenomena as extreme as the Holy Inquisition and witch-burnings -- or Hizbollah and videotaped torture sessions of women who do not know their place.

The point to bear in mind is that terrible things like this are happening now not because Islam cannot change, but because it IS changing. The social rules of an earlier time, inflated into pseudo-religious values by the (mostly male) defenders of the old order, are crumbling.

Recently, the Egyptian parliament was presented with a bill giving women equal rights in divorce. In Iran, 52 percent of last year's intake of university students were women. What's really happening is that change in this domain is going far faster than it did historically in the "Christian" world: three of the five biggest Muslim countries, including Turkey, have already had women leaders.

The faster the change, the more extreme the resistance. It killed Konca Kuris, and the fact that she died for a cause that is going to win can be of little consolation to her children or her husband. It must have been of even less consolation to her, as she went through her long, lonely, agonizing death. But it will win, and when it does she will be one of its heroines.

In America, they have a Martin Luther King Day. In Turkey, they should have a Konca Kuris Day.