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Senay Ozdemir column

June 22, 2009

Here’s the Senay Ozdemir column. And the full text since you never know how long the Statesman keeps these links active.

Writer brings fresh perspective to Mediterranean women

Religion is important, but private, for Senay Ozdemir

Saturday, June 20, 2009

If you’re paying really close attention, you might have already heard of Senay Ozdemir, a Dutch-Turkish journalist and women’s rights advocate.

She has published op-eds in newspapers around the world on topics ranging from feminist politics to virginity among older brides. In Europe, she’s a familiar face on television and through the women’s magazine she created and edits, SEN. And soon she’ll be gaining more attention for her new novel, “The Wax Club,” which is being touted as the Mediterranean version of “Sex and the City.”

Ozdemir, 40, has lived in Austin since December as a visiting professional at the University of Texas, where she taught an online journalism class.

Why are you reading about this accomplished woman in a religion column? Well, Ozdemir also happens to be a Muslim. And the world, I thought, needs to hear from more Muslim women like her. Someone who shatters our Western stereotypes. Modern, glamorous, independent, unafraid to talk frankly about sex and relationships. A person who makes us appreciate the diversity among the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.

But Ozdemir didn’t want to be pigeonholed with religion. Yes, much of her writings were directed at Muslim women, and her passion, she said, is the “emancipation of Mediterranean women” (more on that later), but her faith was complicated and private — something I hadn’t even considered.

I met Ozdemir in 2007 when the International Hospitality Council of Austin arranged for me to give her a tour of the American-Statesman and discuss journalism in the United States. She surprised me with her European fashion and forthrightness, her ease with English (one of five languages she speaks fluently) and her cultural savvy. The newsroom was fine, but she wanted to see Austin. Before I knew it, we were having lunch on South Congress Avenue and later taking in the nightlife of Sixth Street. She was bursting with energy and ideas about politics, journalism and America. But I noticed that day (and in our subsequent conversations this year), she didn’t reveal much about her faith.

She is indeed a Muslim journalist. Her magazine SEN is aimed at young women in the Netherlands who, like herself, come from Turkish backgrounds and must find their place in a liberal, post-religious European world. As editor-in-chief, she wrote an advice column, addressing women’s questions on topics from birth control to how to ask their boss for a raise.

Ozdemir’s family was among the thousands of Turks who moved to the Netherlands in the 1970s for work. She has years of practice keeping a foothold in both cultures, overcoming the disapproval from the religiously conservative immigrant community and the hostility toward her religion from the secular Dutch.

But Ozdemir’s father, a teacher who supported a modern, secular nation-state in Turkey, encouraged her to treat faith as a private matter. She considers herself a secular Muslim. Although her concerns about women’s rights often intersect with Islam and the culture of Muslim communities — she once wrote about the unrealistic expectation of virginity among women who marry in their late 20s and 30s — she is careful not to exploit religion.

For example, the promos for her chick-lit novel, “The Wax Club,” refer to the protagonists as Mediterranean rather than Muslim women.

I began to understand why Ozdemir resists using the term Muslim when writing about women. Though the women she writes about come from Muslim backgrounds or live in Muslim countries, their problems aren’t strictly tied to religion. Culture plays an enormous part. And some of those cultural concerns should be very familiar to us in the United States — sexuality, birth control, reproductive rights.

I realized I had been trying to reconcile Ozdemir with the Islam I had come to know through more traditional Muslims, people who shunned alcohol, preferred gender segregation and made religion the main part of their lives.

I needed to see Ozdemir as she sees herself — a writer, a feminist, a woman fully engaged with the world who can be both Muslim and secular. Turkish and Dutch.

So I put aside the religion reporter lens and got to know Ozdemir, a fellow journalist, a fellow mother, a fellow daughter from a big family. We drank coffee and compared notes on our journalism students at UT and our relationships with the men in our lives. We talked about how our fathers, both teachers, encouraged our education. We discussed current events and debates over the teaching of abstinence and contraception in public schools.

Ozdemir is definitely a woman of faith. That comes through in the way she describes the birth of her son and in the way she talks of Islam as a progressive religion in which women can and should find liberation.

But, as with so many of us, it’s a faith that can’t easily be summed up. And she doesn’t exist to challenge Western stereotypes of Muslim women.

We need to know about Ozdemir because she is challenging us to have difficult conversations, to recognize the complexity in each other and to strive for equality and fairness. To see her only through a religious lens would be to miss the bigger picture.

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