Women’s Participation in Faith-based Social Movements

Aaliya Khan-Fatmi

2021-03-01 14:30:16

Fethullah Gülen, the Muslim scholar who inspired the global educational movement called Hizmet, has not only challenged popular perceptions of Islam in the West and certain practices among Muslims, but has also established a space for humanistically inclined individuals, not only followers of Islam but of other religions as well, to put humanitarian values into practice.

Since the 1960s, Gülen's teachings have mobilized tens of thousands of individuals to put their efforts to make possible “service” to everyone in need regardless of their religion, ethnicity, or nationality, and consequently, a transformation of society into one that is more inclusive.

Not only do the Gülen-inspired non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other organizations work in the field of education for all members of society, they also work for their upliftment by implementing holistic workspaces and living environments to bring out the best in the individuals who are associated with it. This effort has yielded notable exceptions to the practice of confining women folk to homes and household duties, a practice still prevailing in many traditional societies. Since its inception, the teachings of the movement have evolved to veer towards inclusive approaches towards others even though Gülen does not identify any community or social group as a social or political 'other'. The case of Hizmet is a good example of social movements of religious nature which do not confine themselves to the country of its origin but to reach out to both wealthy and impoverished societies across the globe with humanitarian approach.

Many western scholars have associated the movement with what is called “moderate Islam,” as contrasted with some of the “orthodox” currents that exist in West Asia and South-East Asia. Notably, Gülen's teachings have focused and placed a heavy emphasis upon education, including in its origins opportunities for girls that belonged to Muslim households in Turkey who were uncomfortable with sending their daughters to different cities to pursue higher education. With the establishment of Hizmet dorms across the country which promised and delivered safety and trust, this became possible. Hizmet also provided scholarships for girls, including those who wished to continue to wear headscarves at university, an act that was until recently illegal in Turkey. Gülen's advocacy of equal opportunities has resulted in a rise in literacy rates of females in Hizmet's society of origin, Turkey.

Patriarchy in Muslim societies

Patriarchy has been the dominant feature in many traditional social systems throughout history and across all nations. Along with many other reforms, Islam has established a set of foundational principles to establish a more just society in which women could enjoy equal rights and dignity with men. At the time of the Prophet there were good examples of women who were involved in full participation as businesspersons, scholars, as well as warriors. Such exemplary roles and contributions of these women have since suffered setbacks owing to multiple factors. A reason for its endemic presence is the sudden spread of Islam and a lack of organic evolution and embrace of truly Islamic practices on the one hand, and a carryover of pre-Islamic cultural mores on the other. Islam’s egalitarian treatment of both sexes could not have full control over many pre-existing restrictive and patriarchal customs and practices which continued to dominate societies. As a result, women have been confined to their homes, denied education and access to the public sphere. The modesty expected from women have been used to restrict their interaction with the outside world. Women have not only been seen more as caregivers and childbearers than anything else, but have also been associated – and victimized – with honor of men.

All of these factors collectively contributed to a patriarchal and misogynistic approach in many Islamic societies to the day. In present times, women have had to bear the brunt of the fiercely competitive capitalistic setups at the workplace which do not want to invest in a labour force with limited hours of production time. Their training is seen as a waste, and their psychological and emotional upheavals as a loss to the economic enterprises engaging them.

It is imperative that we make note of the fact that the prevalent and widespread misogyny in some Muslim societies has no basis in Islamic traditions.

There are several verses of the Qur’an where men and women are accorded an equal space and status in society. However, the Qur’an and Islamic practices do make a distinction on the basis of physiological and biological differences between men and women. In some Islamic traditions attributed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) they become apparent, for example, “Paradise lies under the feet of your mother,” and the reference which finds mention too often, that when the Prophet was asked, “Who is most deserving of my good company?” The Prophet said, “Your mother.” The man asked, “Then who?” The Prophet said, “Your mother.” The man asked again, “Then who?” The Prophet said, “Your mother.” The man asked again, “Then who?” The Prophet said, “Your father.”

It is also true that a reactionary response of some Islamic scholars to western influence resulted in restricting women’s spaces in Muslim societies.

As a Muslim woman growing up in North India, I find it imperative to note that female members and volunteers in many mainstream Sunni charitable social movements play limited roles and are bound to homes and halaqas. Although women in these communities are actively involved in activities as part of their social and political roles, and space is reserved for their use in public gatherings, including local mosques, significant changes are still needed in women involvement.

Hizmet as a social movement

Religion has been the source of many social movements that have transformed societies. Not only do religions provide endurance to withstand adverse situations, they also have the capability to produce charismatic leaders around whom the movement grows. Such leaders provide ideas that can provide people with incentive to serve God and restore order to His world.

While different theories look at why social movements form and become successful, early social science theories stressed that they are formed to address the grievances of marginalized and underprivileged groups. They may also involve resistance to discrimination of participants. Such was the origin of the now popular Hizmet movement, a name that is used interchangeably with the Gülen movement. It emerged as an alternative path in late 1960s with the spiritual guidance of Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen at a time when Turkey had become a battleground for fascists and socialist extremists. By that time, conservative masses, the so-called “Black Turks,” were already facing discrimination and persecution by the 'secular' and elite “White Turks.” Gülen drew intellectual heritage from the works of the influential and greatly loved Islamic scholar and writer of Kurdish origin Said Nursi. Nursi preached at a time of what he called “Kemalist excesses” and retreated from public life as a result of "arbitrariness of the administrators".

While Nursi spent periods of his life in exile and under arrest and was forced to look inward for a better understanding and view of human life, Gülen, in a changed political scenario, hoped to see Muslims find ways to contribute to society by necessitating social, cultural, and intellectual interactions with others.

Regarding the more sensitive issue of the Islamic headscarf and its ban in Turkey and other countries, Mr. Gülen has been a vocal advocate of focusing on what is better for societies and their individuals in the long run. He has encouraged his followers to afford education its due importance and has reiterated that while the hijab/headscarf is an important part of faith, young Muslim women should seek alternative ways to continue their education in favour of a higher purpose of empowering women. Gülen remains a committed advocate of women’s education. The importance of access to higher education and the social rewards which accompany it, as well as a sense of commitment and resolve in self-actualisation, are the formidable tools the preacher identifies that women have at their disposal to decide how to serve humanity and take part in Hizmet on their own terms.

Women empowerment in the Hizmet movement

The Hizmet movement has moved beyond mere lip service in regard to women’s roles in Muslim societies. Rather than confining itself to discursive conceptions of an egalitarian Muslim society, it has put in practice its teachings.

It has empowered women by entrusting them with power and authority across their networks of organization. While doing research on the movement for this paper, the author came across profiles of several successful female achievers excelling in their roles as part of Hizmet-affiliated organizations. Hizmet has elevated women to positions of prominence as spokespersons and editors-in-chief; they serve as administrators and teachers in affiliated schools, an occupation of great spiritual and religious importance.

Gülen sees the inclusion of women as vital to the realization of a cohesive society and frequently gives an example of the Prophet's wife Aisha, who continues to be highly regarded in the Islamic world, for she was a scholar of Islam. She tutored others on, and answered many queries about, the Prophet's conduct, a topic of great interest and importance to Muslims.

Gülen’s teachings have led people inspired by him to found platforms and opportunities for women to assume various leadership roles either as a spokesperson of an NGO, chief editor of a newspaper, executive director of a mosque, or as a community religious teacher in a town. In his sermons, Gülen reiterates that during the time of the Prophet, women were as active in social life as men. He also adds that it is best for a society to make appropriate and fitting space for its womenfolk.

In Gülen's sermons, one finds references to the principled inclusion of women in the workforce. He emphasizes that women are not to be burdened or restricted with their household roles or professional responsibilities and that if they excel at both then they should be provided with an environment that is conducive to bringing out their full potential.

Gülen calls for a solidarity of society’s members, which can only be possible if there is adequate and proportionate participation of the young and old as well as men and women. Going back to the time of the Prophet of Islam, he mentions that serving Islam was open to all, men and women.

In one of his sermons, Gülen said "Women might have specific circumstances and it will be unfair to impose overwhelming standards on them but they should be given duties to the best of their ability," yet, he adds that a "realistic approach is required where women are included as part of every facet of social life, just as it was in the Age of the Prophet" [1].

Gülen charges both men and women to shoulder human responsibility, and the way to do it, he says in his signature, poetic style, is to "not tread on any toes." He cautions against alienating people or losing friends with careless language, disposition, or words. He builds on this sentiment by saying that discussion, consultation, and ideas, can only prosper when backed by reason and coherence. His emphasis and keen attention to the sensitivity of local culture and civilization appears to be key in his talks. He does not restrict his concerns to ameliorate the situation of mankind or Muslims, but holds a more universal approach, noting that the God of Islam, Allah, did not instruct nor obligate His followers to assist and aid only Muslims, but His creations, i.e., all of mankind.

He warns against being unmindful of delicate matters such as the case at hand and worsening the situation when dealing with cultures not forthcoming of women participating in community-building and social activities. Through these teachings, Mr. Gülen's followers have led by example by having not only providing spiritual and professional assistance, but also moral and social support through the organizations and networks they have formed.

The network Hizmet has made available brings forth associations and bonds which are formed as a result of the secure spaces provided through sohbet (discussion groups) and ders (Islamic study groups) help these women of religious bent find like-minded individuals.

Since hicret, Turkish for the Arabic word hijra, the Islamic concept of migration, is a salient feature of Gülen's teachings, Hizmet volunteers often serve away from their native country or region of origin. This reinforces the need for inter-family interaction and support while building a life in lands far away from their own family in a land where volunteers might not always understand the language, local, ethic associations, or find themselves in new cultures. In some cases, where entire families, including women and children move to unfamiliar environments, women of such families find company and emotional support outside their homes too. In circumstances where women are part-time volunteers or are on a break from work or are full-time housewives, this opportunity to network over ders, food, and culture becomes central to their social lives.


Gülen's approach embodies how the Islamic way of life is in fact very inclusive and egalitarian in a modern sense and that Islam and modernity are not incompatible as perceived even by Muslims in many parts of the world. Gülen refers to the contribution of both men and women in Hizmet as the two faces of a coin – one without the other renders the coin valueless.

Hizmet has provided an alternative to religiously inclined individuals who seek to lead balanced and modern, secular lives yet have made social service a pivotal part of their everyday lives. This, in turn, has metamorphosed into a powerful socially transformative and inclusive movement.

The Movement is an example for how transformation of society can be made possible by serving others through the efforts of a community of committed, generous agents of change. Not only does the movement provide opportunity to women in professional spheres but also provides feminine spheres of bonding to those of filial bents over culture, art and food.

[1] “The Role of Women in the Hizmet Movement and the Principles of Coexistence (Heartstrings) Aug 26, 2019”, Heartstrings by Fethullah Gülen, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPEKmunorL0

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