Female Religious Authority and Islamic Feminist “Counterpublic” in Turkey: The Case of Rifai Shaykha Cemalnur Sargut

By Feyza Burak Adli
Submitted to Session P4976 (Women and Leadership: Past and Present, 2017 Annual Meeting
Gender/Women's Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper examines the phenomenon of female religious authority in an upper middle class Sufi order in Turkey, named Rifaiyye. It focuses on the charismatic female leader of Rifais, Shaykha Cemalnur Sargut, a former chemistry teacher. Founded in late 19th century by Kenan Rifai, the Rifais intellectualize Sufism in particular ways that are conducive to their modern pious subjectivities that have little resemblance to other modern-pious Islamic movements. They reconfigure the discourses and practices of Islam and modernity in novel ways with particular implications for gender norms. Their disruption of normative Muslim gender discourse involves discarding bodily modesty codes such as veiling and gender segregation, and the extension of women’s public participation to the level of community and spiritual leadership.

Female leadership in religious orders that are composed of both men and women is highly unusual in Turkey, if not in the entire Islamic world. In taking on this position of power, Cemalnur Sargut challenges the patriarchal gender bias of mainstream Islamic tradition. She has become a nationally renowned figure with her media appearances and publications. Her bestselling books are devoted primarily to providing exegeses of Quranic verses informed by her distinct Sufi interpretations. Her fame has grown globally through her academic investments such as initiating endowed chairs and research institutes in Sufi studies around the world, including UNC-Chapel Hill in the US, Peking University in China, Kyoto University in Japan and Uskudar University in Turkey.

In this paper I consider both the sources of Cemalnur Sargut’s charisma and the implications of her model of leadership for gender-progressive Islam in Turkish society. Drawing on Warner’s work (2003), I investigate the extent to which Sargut’s leadership and gender discourse constitute a “counterpublic.” Although she forms a public that is in conflict with the norms and contexts of the normative religious environment in Turkey, she rejects the concept of “counterpublic” both in the feminist front and the religious. She often underscores that Sufism promotes unity rather than opposition, and therefore, she does not embrace an Islamic feminist approach to confront the Islamic public. As such, she downplays her gender as irrelevant to her religious authority. I argue that her cautionary position and quietist attitude in forming a “counterpublic” can said to be a political strategy of non-confrontational engagement with the mainstream Turkish-Muslim patriarchal state and society within which she operates.