Lifestyle & Belief

Some in Turkey feel less free now that women are free to wear headscarves

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REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

Women shopping on Taksim St. in Istanbul.

Almost immediately after coming into power, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced he would work to end a long-standing ban on wearing Islamic headscarves in schools and government buildings.

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And this past fall, he and his socially conservative Justice and Development Party did just that.

They argued that the ban unfairly restricted religious Turks. But it seems that Turkey has exchanged one freedom for another.

The restriction had been around since modern Turkey was created in 1923. Founding father Kemal Ataturk hoped to shape a democratic, secular society.

But Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) argued the ban was discriminatory and at odds with the country's democratic ideal.

And that's pretty much what Huri Inegol thought ,too.

"I actively protested for the right of women who wear headscarves to get into universities," Inegol says. "Because if I can go to school in my miniskirt, they should be able to come to school in their headscarves."

Inegol is a secular-minded Turkish language teacher in central Istanbul. While she supported the idea that lifting the ban would mean more freedom for everyone, she says, in practice, that's not how things are playing out.

"Previously, when I wore miniskirts, I felt fine," she says. "There wasn't any social pressure or negativity. But today, a lot of people, whether it's with their facial expressions or their gestures, they make me uncomfortable and I can see it very clearly."

Inegol says that lifting the headscarf ban has emboldened her more conservative neighbors to feel free to judge her for her clothing. And she says the AKP isn't doing anything to discourage that attitude.

"The conservative people feeling more freedom and more comfortable, is in exchange for me feeling less comfortable and less free," Inegol says.

As a result, society has become more polarized. Inegol says she can point to many other examples of ways that the AKP, over the years, has made a secular lifestyle uncomfortable.

Last fall, for example, the prime minister and other government officials attacked university students' living arrangements, railing against men and women living together as roommates. Erdogan said it was important that Turkey raise "a pious and conservative youth."

But Berna Aydin doesn't see it the same way. She's still smarting from the old laws and social stigma associated with the headscarf which kept women like her out of the work force.

"I applied for a job in a company and everything was alright … and then they called me for an interview," Aydin says. "When they saw me with a headscarf, they decided against hiring me. Actually in 1999, we moved from Turkey to the US because I was really upset with the system and with this headscarf issue."

But she and her husband moved back in 2006 when she saw attitudes in Turkey changing, becoming more open thanks to the AKP.

"Our government has eliminated the headscarf issue and many women started going to universities and working," she says. "More women entered the working life because of lifting the headscarf ban."

Aydin says she sees life is better for women these days. But Parliament Member Safak Pavey chastised the government for hypocrisy. Pavey stood up in the chamber and lambasted the AKP for a rule that still stood when the headscarf ban was lifted.

"If the AKP really cared about everyone's personal freedoms, they'd take a few minutes to change the ridiculous parliamentary rules that forbid me, as a woman, from wearing pants to work," Pavey said.

Parliament passed an amendment allowing women to wear pants in parliament after Pavey's speech.*

*Update: A previous version of this story did not include information about a vote following Safak Pavey's speech which resulted in an amendment being passed allowing women to wear pants in parliament.

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