Headscarves in Turkey wave a red flag


KAYSERI, TURKEY— With one foot inching toward Europe and the other firmly rooted in Islam, Turkish women wear societal friction not on their sleeves, but on their heads.

Headscarves, worn by more than half the female population, are a red flag in Turkish society — specifically, Turkey’s classrooms. The issue is as complex as the country itself: One part Europe, the other Asia. Proudly democratic, but staunchly religious and not to be confused with fundamentalist. Cosmopolitan and sophisticated while agrarian and conservative. For many Americans, it's an issue not always understood.

For many years, headscarves were barred from classrooms and seen as promoting religion. But two years ago today, a law was passed allowing headscarves back in Turkish classrooms. The legislation seemed to enjoy popular support and passed by a wide margin, until crowds surged in deafening protest.

A few months later, Turkish courts quickly reinstated the ban.

Turkey is a "modern country,” said student Selma Soysal. “I have the freedom not to wear it. I feel like I perform all the responsibilities of my religion, and the headscarf is not the most important.”

For others, the scarf offers a different freedom.

“I feel protected against men, against their sights," student Cansu Yilmaz said, her voice soft beneath her neon pink headscarf. “Islam says the hair is the most attractive part for men. … Even when you show a little hair, the men feel attracted.”

Turkey’s constitution has been staunchly secular since 1923, when the nation’s first president — Kemal Ataturk — began modernizing the nation. Marriages are legalized in a secular ceremony performed by a municipal official, and then celebrated at a religious function.

Many Turks believe that the headscarf is a dangerous symbol, and that attempts by Erdogan’s party — Justice and Development — to overturn the ban is an affront to Turkish secularism.

“The headscarf is a political symbol,” said opposition party member Canan Aritman during the 2008 demonstrations. “We will never allow our country to be dragged back into the Dark Ages.”

Others note that the ban hurts some women more than others. Religious women are forced to choose between religion and education when not allowed to wear a headscarf in class.

The 2007-2008 UNDP Human Development Report shows Turkey behind every Middle Eastern and North African country except Yemen, regarding the ratio of women to men enrolled in higher education.

“A friend of mine stopped coming to school because of the ban,” Yilmaz said. If a woman cannot wear her headscarf to class, she might not attend class.

In Turkey, nearly half of the women surveyed in a 2007 Gallup poll said they cover their hair in public — the majority of whom are 45 and older. Only 29 percent of women ages 15 to 29 say they cover their hair in one way or another.

Student Sevil Burcak said wearing a headscarf was too demanding a religious and cultural responsibility for her.

“You represent your religion,” Burcak said, “So you must always act in a good manner. You have to avoid all temptations.”

But she doesn't feel forced to wear a scarf, Burcak said. Coercion or peer pressure might occur more in the rural, poorer, eastern areas of Turkey, she and a group of fellow students said.

“My mother doesn’t cover her hair,” affirmed Burcak. “We are not receiving pressure from anybody.”

But some do. Critics of the scarf say it is a public step that validates oppressing and subjugating women.

“Women are seen as second-class citizens by many in communities and families,” said Hacettepe University women’s studies professor Sevkat Ozvaris. Men and women learn it as children, she said.

Women's rights are important in Turkey. Turkey’s General Directorate of the Status of Women (KSGM), a government entity created to study problems of inequality between genders, reported in 2008 that 18 percent of women polled were victims of non-familial violence last year.

The numbers jump to 41.6 percent when you look at familial or domestic abuse, usually inflicted by the partner. The numbers rose above 50 percent in Turkey’s eastern regions where more undereducated and poorer women live.

Expressing his democratic freedom and religious preference, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan sent his daughters to study at Indiana State University, where they wore their headscarves freely.

“Instead of sending his daughters to America, he should abolish the law,” the unveiled Soysal said.

Yilmaz doesn’t remove her tight-fitting scarf in school buildings. Instead, she wears a lopsided wig over her scarf to attend class and fulfill religious obligations. The Koran says women should dress modestly, Yilmaz said, and she said she believes the scarf is necessary to meet that rule.

“The salesman showed me how I can make the wig pretty,” said Yilmaz, “But I don’t want to style it, I want people to know it’s a wig.”

This report comes from a journalist in our Student Correspondent Corps, a GlobalPost project training the next generation of foreign correspondents while they study abroad.