Pop psychology advice claims to demonstrate ways for individuals to achieve more fulfilling romantic relationships by instructing them in “managing their emotions” instead of relying on traditional gender roles.

“Make masculinity great again”: Politics of marriage in Turkey’s Islamic pop psychology

How does Islamic pop psychology in Turkey blend gender roles with advice for marital happiness? Is this approach empowering or reinforcing inequalities?

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Pop psychology advice claims to demonstrate ways for individuals to achieve more fulfilling romantic relationships by instructing them in “managing their emotions” instead of relying on traditional gender roles. Turkey’s Islamic self-help authors creatively combine pop psychology with Islamic neoconservative discourse, offering marital advice and solutions for addressing marital issues in light of the escalating divorce rates within the country.

The growing interest in pop psychology in Turkey overlaps with the surging influence of Islamic and neoconservative discourses in popular culture. These phenomena have discovered fertile political terrain during the past 20 years under the governance of the Justice and Development Party (JDP), which has its roots in the Islamist movement. The JDP adopts neoliberal and neoconservative gender politics, assigning families responsibility for their well-being while designating women as caregivers, mothers, and wives.

In this context, Islamic-oriented authors of pop psychology have gained significant popularity, particularly among religious and conservative women. Their advice pertains to the contemporary pursuit of individual happiness and aspirations for romantic contentment. However, they concurrently exalt an understanding of essentialized gender roles, aligning with the JDP government’s endeavours to enforce women’s compliance with patriarchal power dynamics.

My research explores this advice by conducting a discourse analysis of the YouTube and Instagram posts of three prominent Islamic pop psychology authors who reach a broad audience through their social media accounts. The data includes 29 YouTube videos and 20 Instagram posts, all posted between 2019 and 2021. The findings provide insight into how Turkey’s Islamic pop psychology gurus reconcile contradictory discourses to formulate marital problems and solutions.

How does Islamic pop psychology in Turkey blend gender roles with advice for marital happiness? Is this approach empowering or reinforcing inequalities?
Credit. Author

Masculinity as “God’s glory”

Turkey’s Islamic pop psychology authors utilize the concept of “fıtrat” – an Islamic-derived term that implies a natural, inherent, God-given gendered disposition, as a central element in their marriage advice. They argue that men and women are drifting away from the ‘essence’ of their gender identity in modern life, and therefore, both individuals and marriages suffer. The restoration of “fıtrat” is emphasized as a pivotal remedy, serving both to attain personal well-being and to ‘repair’ struggling marriages.

In addressing men and masculinity, the discourse within Islamic pop psychology exhibits a significant preoccupation with the decline of masculine dominance and a yearning for an envisioned idealised, omnipotent masculinity. Fatih Reşit Civelekoğlu, one of the most famous Islamic psychologists, defines this ideal of masculinity as follows:

Where there is a real man, there will be no unfairness, no injustice. He is like a mountain. Only one man is enough, even his shadow is enough. Masculinity, when lived properly, is divine. God’s glory is manifested in men. God’s beauty is manifested in women. Men are strong, resolute. They are brave and, if need be, violent, to the outer world. They are compassionate to the spouse. Such a man is like a star in the sky. He is a joy to watch….We, men, will stake our claim… Our understanding is based on fıtrat. Fıt-rat!… Men shall be like men, women shall be like women.

Fatih Reşit Civelekoğl

Men are invited back to their ‘natural’ masculinity in marriage, defined as being protective of and authoritative over their wives and children. A noteworthy disparity arises between the exaltation of masculinity and the depiction of men – real, tangible individuals – as narcissistic, insecure, immature ‘mama’s boys,’ and/or as absent husbands seeking excitement outside of marriage. The restoration of their genuine masculinity is presented as a solution not solely to men’s discontentment but also women’s dissatisfaction within the realm of marriage.

Keeping women responsible

Despite the notable emphasis on men’s alleged loss of ‘fıtrat’, Islamic pop psychology primarily addresses women rather than men. This counsel places the onus of resolving marital issues on women, urging them to ‘shape’ their husbands to fit prevailing norms of masculinity. Two key problems are outlined: women’s perceived detachment from their sexuality and emotional dependence on their spouses. Initially, the advice suggests women should shed the shame linked to their sexuality and come to terms with it, albeit within the boundaries of heterosexual marriage.

Hatice Kübra Tongar, a widely followed Islamic pop psychology author, highlights the prevalent occurrence of a near-complete absence of sexual intimacy among religiously conservative couples. This situation commonly arises from wives’ perceived disconnection from their sexuality.

Many married couples do not have any sexual life at all….. I ask them why they do not try to spice it up a bit. They tell me that it would be shameful. Some ladies say they cover their heads even in bed, and that this is taqwa (in line with Islamic piety). Fine. But if your husband will not see your beauty, and if this will harm your sexual life in marriage, what kind of taqwa is that? There is no shame in women’s and men’s sexual needs and desires, as long as these are within the circle of halal (not forbidden).

Hatice Kübra Tongar

According to Tongar, women learn to feel shame about their sexuality due to misguided cultural discourses, which are mistakenly conflated with Islamic teachings. Conversely, Civelekoğlu argues that women become excessively needy and emotionally dependent on their husbands, leading to men losing respect and interest in their wives. As a result, men begin seeking sexual excitement elsewhere.

Reminiscent of Western self-help advice, which suggests emotional detachment and self-love as the cure to women’s relationship problems, Islamic pop psychology authors also constantly talk about ‘loving oneself’, cultivating self-esteem and emotional resilience. They claim that cultivating more profound piety and perceiving themselves as unique creations of God will help women draw healthy boundaries in their relationships, and their husbands will respect them more.

Psychologizing gendered inequality

The counsel to embrace one’s sexuality and cultivate emotional resilience might offer the potential to empower women, although this potential is limited. While they advocate for women to become ‘psychologically robust’ individuals, they also anticipate that women will tolerate inequalities within their marital union. Women are asserted to have a natural inclination towards domestic caregiving responsibilities, while men are encouraged to return to their ‘innate’ role as protective leaders in the family.

For example, Civelekoğlu argues that ‘as long as men are real men’, women should obey their husbands. After all, Islamic pop psychology authors are walking a tightrope: They draw attention away from gendered power relations and try to convince their audience that women can be happy and emotionally strong in their subservient roles in marriage. Women are expected to change the dynamics of their lives solely by mastering their emotions and changing how they feel about themselves. In other words, the structural challenges within the institution of marriage are individualized and encapsulated within a psychological framework.


Journal reference

Sayan-Cengiz, F. (2023). ‘Make masculinity great again’: politics of marriage and neoconservatism in Turkey’s Islamic-oriented self-help discourse. Turkish Studies, 1-21. https://doi.org/10.1080/17430437.2022.2125385

Feyda Sayan-Cengiz is an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Manisa Celal Bayar University, Turkey. She obtained her PhD in Political Science from Bilkent University. In 2010, she served as a Visiting Researcher at Columbia University's Anthropology Department. Her book titled "Beyond the Headscarf Culture in Turkey's Retail Sector" was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016. She has contributed to edited collections, as well as various international academic journals. Her research primarily centres on the politics of gender, populism, self-help culture, and its political implications.