Intersectional Talk on Decolonising Religion and Spirituality with Sevgi Yilmaz

Wonda Women thinks this is an important topic to discuss because there is a general misconception that (all) religions are anti-feminist or stand in contrast to feminism. These ideas are not only Eurocentric, but they also contribute to excluding religious people from feminism.

During the event we took turns discussing what our relationship is to religion and spirituality. After a brief introduction honorary guest Sevgi Yilmaz gave a little presentation of which a summary is here below:

Orientalism Orientalism is an idea produced in the West which puts the East in the inferior position of the ‘other’. Edward Said was the first person who theorized about Orientalism. He examined the ways in which ‘the Orient’ (meaning the East) was constructed in European thinking. He presents Orientalism as the institution for dealing with ‘the Orient’. Orientalism is a way for the West to dominate, restructure and have authority over the East. It is an institutionalized way of looking at the ‘other’ from the Orient, built upon assumptions and stereotypes.

Stereotypes about Muslim women

Early Western feminists contributed to the (colonial) idea of the oppressed eastern woman through their writing.

The most common stereotypes about Muslima’s:

  • she has no agency

  • wearing a headscarf is not voluntarily done

  • she has no voice to speak out with

  • she needs to be saved (usually by ‘helping’ her unveil)

Example of colonialism

In the name of so-called Western enlightenment, Turkey became a secular nation. At the heart of this transformation was women’s veiled bodies, which was seen as ‘backwards’. The Turkish nationalists believed (early 20th century) that women could only emancipate through unveiling. This is a colonial idea of what emancipation is.

Recent feminist and postcolonial writings focus on the complicity between feminism and colonialism. The oriental woman who is veiled, mysterious or living in a harem is often signaled as the oppression of women. Moreover, the eastern man is often depicted as the aggressor. These ideas perpetuate western superiority and claim the western man as the only rational and civilized archetype.

Racism and sexism

Sevgi also explained that when it comes to racism, women suffer more than men because there is also sexism involved. When we talk about the oppression of women or patriarchy, we think that Muslim women have it worse than white women but it’s actually the same. It may be more explicit when it comes to Muslim women, but the levels of inequality do not differ much from each other.

Sevgi’s own experience

Sevgi told us about her own experience with religion and spirituality. She was raised in a Kurdish and Turkish family with a mainstream idea of Islam. Every country has a different idea of Islam because it is always intertwined with culture. For example, in Turkey Islam is focused a lot on masculinity.

She started asking a lot of questions about homosexuality and womanhood. She also went to different mosques to see where she would fit in. Sevgi investigated the link between human rights and Islam (there is much to read about this). She was a feminist from a young age, but she didn’t know it as feminism yet. However, she also saw that people of faith got excluded from feminism.

On her journey, which had feminism as the main drive, she recognized the stereotypes about religious women. She thinks it’s important to talk to people and not assume people are oppressed just because of their veils. Also do your own research about feminism and religion.

About homosexuality and Islam, she had the following to share with us. There are a lot of texts and interpretations done. It is very possible to be both Muslim and queer. She also said that coming out is a very western concept.

Secularism and gender

Secularism has the biggest exclusion effect. For example France: it is only secular when it comes to Islam. Religious clothing is only forbidden when it is Islamic.

Christianity is often seen as neutral, while Islam is used to critique masculinity. However, what is neutrality? Why are white men seen as the neutral standard? Masculinity is criticized when talking about Middle Eastern men, whereas white men are not talk about in those terms.

Women in the ‘orient’ or east are seen as oppressed. However, it is here in the Netherlands that we are not giving women the freedom to decide what to wear by forbidding niqabs.

Women seem to lose either way. Secular and religious states both restrict women them and refuse to give them their full ownership over their own bodies. Feminist arguments are being used against women in this instance. We cannot be in charge of our own empowerment if we don’t have ownership over our own bodies.


Sevgi advices that we should create our own inclusive communities, safe spaces where we can be ourselves completely, but where we can also share our religion with each other.

Follow Sevgi for accessible information on religion.




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