French and Dutch newspaper representations of Islam: the position of Muslim women in the 1920s and 1930s Koen Docter, ma msc mres Introduction

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French and Dutch newspaper representations of Islam: the position of Muslim women in the 1920s and 1930s

Koen Docter, MA MSc MRes


Since the events of September 11, 2001, Islam has been a strongly debated topic in many European countries. Fear for Muslims and Islam has increased considerably. This fear was reflected or, according to some, even fostered by the media. Media play a key role in the creation, diffusion and conservation of stereotypical images of Muslims and Islam (Said, 1981; Shadid & Van Koningsveld, 2002, pp. 174-188; Eide, 2008, pp. 156-161). Analysing the media strategies after 9/11, some observers even signalled a return to a “classically Orientalist framework” (Kumar, 2008). Already over thirty years ago, Said (1978) argued that modern representations of the Muslim World are a continuation of an essentially Eurocentric, imperialist worldview that originated in the nineteenth century.

Islam is increasingly presented as being incompatible with Western values in general and secularism in specific. An analysis of media representations can help understand how boundaries between Muslim immigrants and Western societies are shaped discursively (Korteweg and Yurdakul, 2009, pp. 233-234). The debate about Islam has taken a different shape in different European countries. In this regard, comparisons between France and the Netherlands are particularly interesting because of their contrasting state-church models (Kennedy, 2010; Sunier, 2010). As Maussen (2009, p. 252) explains, their “state regimes are historical products, comprising different traditions and various principles that work together to create a distinctive national approach, but that also exist in tension with each other”. For this reason, a comparative historical analysis helps understand the present-day differences between French and Dutch ways of dealing with Muslims and Islam.

The position of Muslims and Islam in the French and Dutch society should above all be seen as a legacy of the colonial era (Chambon, 2002, p. 216). Previous studies have indicated that French institutional arrangements and policy towards Muslims have been characterised by a relatively strong continuity since the colonial era. The Dutch colonial experience with Islam seems to have had considerably less influence on the immigration policy since the 1980s (Maussen, 2006, p. 234).

The starting point of this study is that media representations of Muslims are historical products and that the perspectives of the media are strongly influenced by their national contexts. In short, this study will show where present-day media representations of Muslims come from, by looking at the continuities and discontinuities between the colonial and post-colonial discourses in France and the Netherlands. Moreover, the representation of Muslims and Islam is linked to the particular forms of secularism adopted in both countries, using the following research question: What was the influence of the French and Dutch models of secularism and imperialism on the development of the respective newspaper representations of Islam during the period 1920-2015?

To answer this question, the dissertation will eventually use a combination of a quantitative and a qualitative approach: a quantitative content analysis of a large number of newspaper articles, combined with an in-depth discourse analysis of a smaller number of exemplary articles. Quantitative content analysis is very suitable for analysing and comparing large numbers of texts, because qualitative information is counted and thus quantified. This makes it a very useful tool for the study of mass media. Yet while it is a great method to identify patterns in press reporting, it does not offer an explanation as to why these patterns exist. To compensate for this limited explanatory value, this method is often used in combination with a complementary qualitative approach (Bryman, 2008). This paper will focus on the latter: an in-depth textual analysis of a limited number of articles.

The dissertation will focus on a number of key themes that have dominated newspaper articles about Muslims and Islam. One of these themes or so-called ‘archetypical preducial strategies’ is the ‘social threat of Muslim gender inequality’ (Richardson, 2004, pp. 75-93). During the colonial era, the position of women in Muslim societies was a popular topic of debate among Europeans. They usually held Islam responsible for the lamentable fate of Muslim women (Waardenburg, 2000, p. 416). The position of women in society was a widely-used ‘index of civilisation’ in imperial rhetoric. Non-European societies were strongly criticised for their treatment of women. In this Eurocentric worldview, “It was whites of European descent who knew how to ‘treat’ women” (Levine, 2004, p. 7). This view conveniently ignored the fact that European women themselves were far from being treated as equals of men. The 1920s and 1930s were characterised by an increased involvement of emancipated white women in the imperial projects and the rise of a new group of educated middle-class women who saw themselves as ‘modern’. This contributed to an augmented interest in the emancipation of ‘oppressed’ women in the colonies. Stereotypes of colonised women would eventually shape popular perceptions of female migrants (Bush, 2004).

This paper focuses on a case study related to this theme: the way French and Dutch newspapers discussed women’s place in Islam during the 1920s and 1930s. After having briefly introduced the state of women’s emancipation in the interwar period, the paper will introduce the newspapers, authors and events that are the focus of this case study. Next, we will discuss the most important issues, perspectives and metaphors from the newspaper articles on Muslim women. The final section will analyse the (often contrasting) discourses on the male-female divide, colonial policy and emancipation, which can typically be observed in the interwar newspaper articles.

Background: the emancipation of women in the 1920s and 1930s

During the 1920s and 1930s, feminism was in a state of crisis in both France and the Netherlands, albeit for very different reasons. Dutch feminists had largely accomplished their most important goals by 1919: formal labour equality, women’s suffrage and improvement of the legal status of married women. These important feminist victories were followed by a period of stagnation (Mossink, 1995; Braun, 1992). French feminists had been considerably less successful. French women would not obtain their right to vote until 1944, as politicians across the political spectrum were sceptical towards their feminist demands. The interwar years were even characterised by a real ‘backlash’ against feminism, as it was commonly associated with communism as result of the Bolshevik program for the emancipation of women (Offen, 2000; Bard, 2011; Read, 2014).

In both countries, the position of Muslim women in the colonies was a much-debated topic. French nationalists and French Algerians argued that Islam was irreconcilable with French culture because of the radically different ideas and laws about family and sexuality (Clancy-Smith, 1998, pp. 172-174). In particular, the harem was singled out as an important threat, as it could be considered a ‘state within a state’. Nationalists used this argument to support their view that France should not grant French citizenship to Algerians. Left-winged politicians also criticised the treatment of Algerian women, but they argued that this gap could be overcome: they proposed a modernisation program to improve the conditions for Muslim women. In the Netherlands Indies, the colonial authorities concentrated their efforts to educate Indonesian women solely on those who were members of the elite and who were deemed to be open for change. As Locher-Scholten (2000, p. 29) explains, “Interference in the rural women’s marriage customs such as child marriage, divorce and polygamy was consciously avoided in the years between the two World Wars”. In 1937, a proposal by the colonial government to ban polygamy and discourage divorces, sparked an intense debate in Indonesia. Muslim and nationalist organisations strongly opposed the interference of the colonial government in such indigenous questions.

In the meantime, Mustafa Kemal introduced a series of legal reforms that improved the position of women in Turkey: he adopted a secularised and revised family code in 1926, introduced women’s suffrage at the municipal level in 1930 and at the national level in 1935. Women were encouraged to participate in public life and enter the workforce. In addition, polygamy was prohibited, the Islamic veil and garments were strongly discouraged and women obtained the right to initiate divorce (Fleischmann, 2010, pp. 181-192). As we will see in this paper, these developments would figure prominently in the press debate on Muslim women’s emancipation.

Newspapers, authors and context


This case study looks at a number of newspaper articles from some of the most popular French and Dutch newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s. Le Petit Parisien was the most popular French newspaper of the early twentieth century. It generally followed an editorial line of political neutrality, in order to appeal to as many readers as possible (Bellanger, 1972, pp. 512-514; Charle, 2004, pp. 309-326). Le Matin was another popular newspaper, which gradually lost a large part of its readership between the two World Wars, as its editorial line shifted from moderately nationalist to the extreme right. Both the editorial line and the circulation figures of equally right-winged Le Figaro developed in the opposite direction: when the editorial line became more moderate, the circulation figures rose (D’Almeida & Delporte, 2003, p. 89-90). La Croix stood apart from the other newspapers as the only remaining catholic national newspaper after World War I. From 1927 onwards, it expressed loyalty to the Catholic Church but mostly abstained from clear political activism. L’Humanité was the official newspaper of the communist party, which became increasingly popular during the interwar years (Bellanger, 1972).

The most popular Dutch newspaper, De Telegraaf, was politically neutral: it was not linked to one of the ‘social pillars’. It gained success with its sensationalist focus on spectacular events and scandals. Amsterdam-based newspaper Algemeen Handelsblad also presented itself as a politically neutral newspaper, but its editorial line was liberal (Dijkstra, 1999, pp. 264-266). Het Vaderland was a liberal newspaper, based in The Hague. It was most famous for its high-quality cultural journalism (Wijfjes, 2005, p. 160).

The female voice

While many newspaper articles on the position of women in Islam were written by anonymous editors or reporters, it is striking to see that those articles that do mention the name of the author, were often written by female journalists. A first example of this is Andrée Viollis (1870-1950), whom Charle (2004, p. 260) calls “l’une des rares femmes grand reporter”. She had an exceptionally long and successful career in journalism and travelled to many different countries (including warzones). Like many of her contemporaries, her political ‘awakening’ was the direct result of the Dreyfus affair. Viollis developed a strong desire to fight against injustice and championed the feminist and anti-fascist cause, while also sympathising with socialist and pacifist ideas. From the 1930s onwards, she criticised colonial injustice and expressed anticolonial views (Renoult, 2013). In a long article in Le Petit Parisien (22 May 1927, pp. 1-2), Viollis evaluates the first years of the young Turkish Republic under Mustafa Kemal and discusses its future challenges. She shows a particular interest in the topic of women’s emancipation in Turkey. A few years earlier (26 January 1922), Magdeleine Marx (née Legendre, 1889-1973) published an article about the same topic in communist newspaper L’Humanité. Her communist point of view becomes very clear in her evaluation of the state of feminism and the position of working class women in Turkey, as we will see in the final section of this paper.

Another female journalist writing about the emancipation of Muslim women is Marie Barrère-Affre, who discusses Islamic culture and the Catholic missionary activities in Morocco in an article in La Croix (11 August 1933, p. 3). Barrère-Affre (1885-1963) was a Catholic writer living in Morocco (Constans, 2007, p. 89), who was considerably more conservative than Marx and Viollis. She published a number of novels that were situated in Morocco and often focused on a female protagonist (Déjeux, 1994, p. 13). Explicitly drawing from personal experience, she pays special attention to the way French women behave when visiting Moroccan women in harems.

An example of a Dutch female author publishing an article about Muslim women, is A.G. Tuinzing-Van der Maat. She was working as a correspondent at the Nederlandsch-Indische Theepropaganda (Netherlands Indies Tea Propaganda) in Batavia1. Her article in De Telegraaf (5 December 1937, p. 11) seems to be a one-time contribution. It draws heavily on an article published shortly before by Soewarsih Djojopoespito in an Indonesian newspaper. Soewarsih Djojopoespito (1912-1977) was a female Indonesian teacher and writer, who was active in the Indonesian nationalist and female rights movements.2 She is cited to demonstrate how Indonesian women think about polygamy and their position in the Indonesian society. Another example of a woman who is cited as an authority, is Fannina Halle (1881-1963), a Lithuanian-Austrian art historian and sociologist. De Telegraaf (23 February 1938, p. 9) reviews her book on the emancipation of women in the Orient.

In another interesting case, the male journalist is very conscious of his gender. George Nypels (1885-1977) was a travelling reporter writing for Algemeen Handelsblad, who reported on revolutions and revolutionary movements in many different countries, including Germany, Russia, Hungary and Italy. In 1921 he was the first European journalist to interview Mustafa Kemal in Turkey (Van Renssen, 2006). Between 3 and 11 June 1921, he published a series of five long background articles (about 2,000 words each) on the position of women in Turkish society. In this series, Nypels repeatedly states that he got all his information from Turkish male friends, as he hardly ever had the chance to talk to Turkish women. He notes that during his stay in Turkey, he dined only once in the company of a woman: Halide Edip (1884-1964), novelist, nationalist and women rights activist, and also the wife of Minister Adnan Adıvar (1882-1951), who invited Nypels to his home. Nypels explains that he found it very difficult to learn more about the relations between men and women in Turkey in general and polygamy in specific. He states that it is a very difficult and sensitive topic to discuss with Turks, who get tired of constantly being asked the same questions about their private life by European strangers: “What happens between man and wife is the secret of the Mohammedan religion…” (Nypels, 3 June 1921).

In conclusion, women’s voices are heard in many articles on the position of women in Islam, either as the authors or cited as an important authority. To what extent the presence or absence of women’s voices in newspaper articles lead to different views on Islam, will be discussed in the next sections. We will first have a closer look at the topicality and context of the articles in this case study.

Context of the articles

The articles selected for this case study are all long to very long in-depth background articles (ranging from 1,200 to almost 5,000 words). In some cases there was a clear and direct cause to write the article. For example, two articles on the citizenship status of Algerians that were published in Le Figaro on 8 and 9 February 1937, were a clear reaction to the Blum-Viollette project. This was a plan by the socialist government that would have granted French citizenship to 20 to 25,000 Algerians who could provide “evidence of French culture or service to France” (Cohen, 1972, p. 381). This proposal met heavy resistance from other political parties, French settlers in Algeria and the military. In the end, the bill was never passed. The criticism of Le Figaro was based on the argument that Muslim polygamists, with their supposedly bad treatment of women, should not be allowed to get French citizenship.

Another example of a clearly topical article is ‘Le triomphe de la femme turque’, which was written by the Constantinople correspondent of Le Matin (11 February 1935) and discusses Turkish women’s right to vote. In February 1935, Le Matin campaigned vigorously for women’s right to vote. For weeks, the headers ‘La femme française veut voter’ and ‘Pour le vote des femmes’ figured on the front page on a daily basis. Le Matin organised a large-scale poll among its readers and published an endless series of articles in which many prominent figures expressed their support for women’s right to vote. The article ‘Le triomphe de la femme turque’ was part of this long campaign. By underlining that Turkish women had already acquired their right to vote, the newspaper supported the view that it was about time to give French women the right to vote as well.

Tuinzing-Van der Maat’s article in De Telegraaf, with the title ‘Pro en contra de polygamie. Gehuwde Moslim-vrouw ontwaakt’ (‘Pro and contra polygamy. Married Muslim woman awakens’), can be read as an evaluation of the 1937 debate on polygamy. This was a very vivid debate in the Netherlands Indies, which started as a reaction to a proposal by the colonial government to restrict polygamy and make divorce more difficult (to prevent repudation). This 1937 policy proposal was originally conceived to protect (European) Dutch women who married Indonesian Muslim men against repudation and polygamy. It was embraced by some Indonesian feminists and women’s organisations, but ultimately rejected because of the strong opposition from Muslim and nationalist organisations. These organisations defended the idea that Muslim family law was a purely indigenous affair in which the Dutch colonial government should not interfere (Locher-Scholten, 2000, pp. 187-218).

Some other articles lack a clear cause and are not linked to any particular recent event. An example of this is an article on Islamic family law and polygamy in Syria, published in Algemeen Handelsblad on 9 November 1931. The author explains Islamic family law and describes many examples of ‘odd’ situations, but none explain the topicality of the article. The same goes for the before-mentioned articles by Barrère-Affre (11 August 1933), Viollis (22 May 1927) and Marx (26 January 1922). Barrère-Affre discusses the position of women in Islam in a long article, in which she also addresses the Catholic mission in Morocco. Marx writes about the emancipation of Turkish women, while Viollis focuses on the same topic in an article that critically evaluates Mustafa Kemal’s ground-breaking reforms in the young Turkish Republic.


In the 1920s and 1930s, Europeans had a particular interest in the topics of polygamy and harems, which figured prominently in exciting exotic fantasies about the East but were simultaneously condemned as reprehensible signs of backwardness. According to Ahmed (1981, p. 524), the idea of women constantly being together, separated from men, incited erotic fantasies among Western men and ultimately led to speculations being regarded as facts. This way, she argues, a fictionalised account of what was going within harems was at the basis of a centuries-long Western obsession.

Reporter George Nypels of Algemeen Handelsblad also noticed this public fascination with polygamy and harems. He travelled to Turkey to interview several important politicians and other influential persons, including Mustafa Kemal. Yet after his return to the Netherlands, Nypels notes that his compatriots are more interested in different kinds of stories: “From the many conversations I had since my return from the Near-East, it became clear that nothing interests the Westerner more than what those harems are about!” (Nypels, 3 June 1921). Magdeleine Marx (26 January 1922, p. 1), reporting for communist newspaper l’Humanité, admits that she was equally fascinated by the concept of harems when she travelled to Constantinople: “Like every self-respecting foreigner, when I had barely arrived in Constantinople, I naively asked to enter into a harem, and to get to know the mysterious women who are hidden behind black bars.

Harems and polygamy: the romantic-nostalgic versus the critical view

Indeed, some journalists also still had a very romantic vision of harems. A few years after the publication of Nypels’ articles, Het Vaderland published an article by Latvian-German journalist and writer Bernhard Szana (18 October 1925, p. 5), who wrote several books on Ottoman politics. In this article, he discusses the coming abolition of polygamy in Turkey (which would become effective with the introduction of a new civil code on 4 October 1926). Szana seems to regret the approaching end of polygamy. He starts and concludes his article with expressions of Orientalist nostalgia:

The end of polygamy has come and once more a part of fairy-tale life disappears from the Orient, chased away by the iron fist of…… Mustafa Kemal, who already deprived his people from the sultan and caliphs, eunuchs and odalisques and now also the right of polygamy, which for thirteen centuries was guaranteed by law for the followers of Mohammed, the harem with all of its joys and tragedies. […]

And from the unfreedom and secludedness, the Turkish woman now enters a free life. Away with the harem, polygamy is no more. But who knows whether the abolition of polygamy will be to the advantage or disadvantage of the Turkish woman? The new freedom will encompass no less tragedy than the previous slavery. And many will remember the slavery with nostalgia and sigh: with the bars, with the veil, the beautiful delusion has been ripped in two.

It is remarkable that Szana refers to polygamy as ‘slavery’ (characterised by ‘unfreedom and secludedness’), yet remains sceptical about the advantages of its abolition. Not only does he lament the disappearance of ‘fairy-tale life’ and the ‘beautiful delusion’ from the Orient, he also assumes that Turkish women will eventually do the same. With this, he seems to assume that what is a source of exoticist fantasies for him, is perceived in a very similar way by those women who are actually part of it. French feminist journalist Andrée Viollis (22 May 1927) ridicules such romantic visions of polygamy and the veil, such “poetic lamentations over the death of the female mystery ”. She suggests that Westerners who actually resort to this kind of romantic nostalgia, clearly have no clue of the “dark tyranny” that hides in these symbols. She describes how “turbaned clerks” have encouraged and exploited religious fanaticism, in order to “keep the people ignorant [and] enslave the women”.

Other journalists also describe polygamy in very negative terms and welcome its abolition. Barrère-Affre considers polygamy as the single biggest concern for Muslim women in Morocco and calls it “the big nefarious shadow”. She also states that Moroccan women are “mercilessly locked into the ignorance of harems”, where “the imprisoned creatures […] suffer from the polygamy that is imposed upon them”. Referring to Turkey, De Telegraaf (23 February 1938) compares polygamy to other forms of mistreatment of women and states: “the harem walls have been torn down and the tyranny of bride-buying and child marriages has been abolished”. A Damascus-based reporter of Algemeen Handelsblad (9 November 1931) calls the Syrian family law that permits polygamy “completely obsolete” and states that even Muslim jurists agree on the “superiority of the European legislation”. Tuinzing-Van der Maat (5 December 1937) enthusiastically welcomes a policy proposal to encourage monogamy among Muslims in the Dutch East Indies, stating that “the legal status of the Indigenous woman would be considerably improved”. Le Figaro (8 February 1937) criticises the particular status (‘statut personnel’) of Algerian Muslims that allows polygamy, claiming that this status “essentially contains a whole range of arrangements aimed at securing the absolute, despotic authority of the father of the family”. Besides the polygamy, these arrangements include marriages to under-aged girls and many other “abuses [that are] rather shocking in our state of civilisation3.

Harems and polygamy: past and present

Both Nypels (6 June 1921) and Szana (18 October 1925) underline that the phenomenon of polygamy is much older than Islam itself. Szana describes the Sultan’s harem in romantic terms, as the place where “hundreds of the most beautiful women from all continents” schemed and plotted to become the Sultan’s favourite. He focuses on one such plot in detail, including a violent murder and execution “as is the custom in that country”. In this regard, Szana largely agrees with Nypels (who otherwise does not seem to share Szana’s nostalgia over ‘fairy-tale’ harems). Nypels (6 June 1921), claims that polygamy made “every Turkish house a breeding ground of a spirit of intrigue and espionage, of corruption and perversity, which stained and weakened the ruling and governing classes”. Ultimately, he argues, this even led to the downfall of the great Ottoman empire. Barrère-Affre (11 August 1933) claims that in Morocco polygamy also leads to jealousy, rivalries between the scheming wives and even murder plots.

Nypels (6 June 1921) rightfully stresses that the word harem is often misused and misinterpreted in the West. It generally refers to the parts of the house that are only accessible to female relatives: although polygamy is legally permitted, it is really a very rare phenomenon in Turkey. Nypels (11 June 1921) mentions some examples of exceptional cases in which men have two wives, because of very specific and justifiable circumstances. He argues that the prophet Muhammad introduced prescriptions that were very progressive at the time and greatly improved the position of women. Marx (26 January 1922) makes the same argument, but adds that these initially revolutionary prescriptions would later hinder the further emancipation of women for many centuries, as the Quran decrees the inferiority of women. She states that the history of Oriental women can simply be divided in two periods: one from Muhammad’s to the years before the War and one from the War to the present day (1922). The past few years are characterised by a “sudden break of the cage bars”, “an eruption of free air among [women’s] oppressed existences”.

Nypels underlines that most of the Turkish people have always remained monogamous for economic reasons. As a result of the economic decline and “contact with the Western civilisation”, even the elite, which used to be polygamous during the Ottoman times, has become increasingly monogamous. Consequently, Nypels (6 June 1921) states that they have become better Muslims in this regard, since Muhammad pictured monogamy as his ideal. Szana (18 October 1925) underlines that the Quran demands that all four wives be treated as complete equals, which in practice turns out to be very difficult: hence the relative rarity of the phenomenon. Marx (26 January 1922) also stresses that “polygamy no longer exists”. She describes how Turks burst into laughter when she expressed her desire to visit a harem in Constantinople. They explained her that it was already difficult enough to provide for one wife. Algemeen Handelsblad (9 November 1931) states that both polygamy and repudiations have equally lost ground in Syria as result of the more difficult economic situation, although having more than one wife is still considered a sign of wealth in Damascus.


As we have seen before, both Szana (18 October 1925) and Viollis (22 May 1927) used the metaphor of slavery to describe polygamy and, more generally, Muslim’s treatment of women. Other journalists in both the French and Dutch newspapers make the same comparison. Le Figaro (8 February 1937) states : “Without being feminist, one can find that the slavery of women as Muslim law conceives it and as it is practised in Algeria, is no longer of our time. ” Tuinzing-Van der Maat (5 December 1937) refers to Soewarsih Djojopoespito, who also argues that women in polygamous marriages are treated as slaves: they have to obey their husbands in everything and “they all lived in utmost secludedness, without ever enjoying the chance to enjoy all the beauty life has to offer”.

Another metaphor commonly used, is to describe women in Islam as being treated like ‘merchandise’, ‘objects’ and ‘the property’ of their husbands. Szana (18 October 1925) writes about Muslim women before the abolition of polygamy in Turkey: “His life companion was only an apathetic instrument of despotic arbitrariness, a slave of rude carnal pleasure, bought merchandise, at best a decoration of the house, but as his servant, not as his wife.De Telegraaf (23 February 1938, p. 9), in its review of Fannina Halle’s book on the emancipation of women in the Orient, also argues that Islamic family law treats women as ‘merchandise’ and weddings as ‘trade transactions’. For this reason, according to De Telegraaf the treatment of women in Islam is characterised by a “rare degree of backwardness”: until recently, the position of Muslim women was even worse than that of European women in the Middle Ages. The Dutch newspaper states that European women at least received support from their Christian religion, while Islam reduced them to objects that could be bought and sold. A Damascus-based reporter of Algemeen Handelsblad (9 November 1931) states that Muslim men generally ‘buy’ their wife by paying a sum to her father (although they are theoretically supposed to pay this sum to their wife), after which she becomes ‘the property’ of her husband.

2.4.4 Divorce laws and interreligious marriages

Besides polygamy, two other aspects of unequal treatment of men and women in Muslim marriages and relations are often emphasised and criticised: ‘unfair’ divorce laws and the problems of interreligious marriages. With regard to the first aspect, Tuinzing-Van der Maat (5 December 1937) notes that the problem of polygamy in the East Indies is worsened by the fact that it is very difficult for women to get a divorce. The Syria correspondent of Algemeen Handelsblad (9 November 1931) agrees that it is extremely difficult for Muslim women to get a divorce, as they need to have a clear justification. Muslim men, on the other hand can easily decide to divorce. They only have to tell their wives in ‘clear words’ that they wishes to end the marriage, for example by saying “You are like my mother’s back to me”. According to both the reporter of Algemeen Handelsblad and the one of Le Figaro (8 February 1937), this kind of ‘divorce’ would better be called ‘repudiation’. In his series of articles on women in Turkey, Nypels (8 June 1921) paints a very different picture. He states that while it is nominally very easy for Turkish men to divorce from their wives, these wives make sure to include heavy repercussions to such a divorce in their wedding contracts.

With regard to interreligious marriages, the Damascus-based reporter of Algemeen Handelsblad (9 November 1931) criticises the regulation that holds that Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men, while there are no objections for Muslim men to marry Christian and Jewish women. He calls this a sign of “intolerance”. Moreover, he warns that it is not uncommon for Arabs who have married a European woman, to marry three more wives upon their return to the Middle East. Nypels (10 June 1921) also observes that despite the fact that Turks have become more liberal and increasingly ‘unreligious’ in recent years (in the sense that they pray less, drink alcohol and gamble), relations between Muslim girls and non-Muslims remain a considerable taboo. On the other hand, he states that traditionally wealth and status matter less in Turkish society in general and in the choice of a partner in specific. Moreover, he praises the lack of racial hatred.

Other topics: the Islamic veil, work and education

Other topics occasionally discussed in relation to the position of women in Islam, are the Islamic veil and face-covering garments, as well as work and education for women. The discussion about the veil remains relatively marginal in the interwar newspaper articles. Nypels (3 and 10 June 1921) underlines that the Quran only requires women to cover their hair and body shapes, so not their faces. He states that after the Turkish capitulation in World War I, many women covered themselves up or stayed inside as much as possible out of fear of being abused by Western men. Their appalling misbehaviour had led to a considerable and justifiable mistrust and even hate towards Westerners. After their departure, the use of face-covering garments started to decline.

Less than a year later, Magdeleine Marx (26 January 1922) notes that although some women in Istanbul can still be seen wearing the traditional black ‘charshaf’ headscarves, most do not: “in general, the women no longer fear to show their faces that are so beautifully made-up, so prettily framed by their curls that they almost all look just like Parisian women, disguised in a Turkish way”. Moreover, Marx states that the “legendary separation between men and women” has all but disappeared, as Turkish women now mingle with men in public transport and public buildings. However, she argues that the most crucial aspect of women’s emancipation is economic independence. In Turkey, more and more bourgeois women obtain jobs in ministries, hospitals, shops and schools. Some women even succeed to make a career as an artist. Yet women’s wages remain much lower than men’s (just like in France, Marx ironically notes).

A few years later, French feminist journalist Viollis (22 May 1927) was very positive about the developments in the field of women’s emancipation in Turkey. She welcomes the recent suppression of polygamy and the veil by Mustafa Kemal. Moreover, she is very enthusiastic about the introduction of obligatory education for girls, which she describes as a very significant development. She notes how happy Turkish girls are to be able to go to school. All in all, this makes her very optimistic about the role women will play in Turkish society. For this reason, she even predicts that in five or six years’ time Turkey “will have strongly conquered its place under the sun, among the democracies of Europe”.

Catholic writer Barrère-Affre (11 August 1933) does not agree with Viollis: she thinks that women’s emancipation in Turkey has developed into an all too ‘libertarian’ direction. She finds it undesirable to have a similar development in Morocco. Therefore she has some doubts about the desirability of offering education to Moroccan girls (in Catholic schools). She states that ‘Muslim law’ prohibits girls’ education. Therefore, admitting girls to schools would mean “an unprecedented upheaval, a true revolution the Moroccan mores”. For Barrère-Affre, the most important reason to still consider the introduction of girls’ education in Morocco is that “the gap deepens and widens between the young men and young daughters of Islam”, since nowadays boys do get proper education. For Barrère-Affre, the problem of this gap is not that women cannot have the same careers as men. Indeed, this kind of emancipation is not even desirable in her eyes. For her, the main concern is that as a result of this gap, it will be increasingly difficult for Moroccan men to find a wife who has “an understanding spirit and an intelligence that is as well developed as his own”. Without proper education, Muslim girls and women will simply remain “luxurious toys, idle puppets, ignorant and futile brains who will never know another science than coquetry and superstition”.

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