Turkey’s covered women fed up with politics over their headscarves

February 28, 2008

It started as a women’s protest for the right to wear Muslim headscarves at university, in this case at Marmara University in Istanbul. Then the men showed up with their banners and megaphones, lined up in front of the cameras and began speaking in place of the women. That left the ladies standing demurely on the sidelines or in the crowd, all decked out with their bright silk scarves with nothing to do but clap at what the men said.

It was just another case of what women here often complain about — that the headscarf has been hijacked by politics for decades, leaving ordinary women to suffer the consequences. Some have sacrificed an education for their faith, preferring not to go to university if it means uncovering, and they feel like little more than a political football in this very masculine power struggle.

Check out our video from Marmara University, especially the protester who says “We want freedom to wear headscarves!” Hmmm … do you think he’ll ever wear one?

Turkish politics is deeply divided over whether women should be allowed to wear the headscarf at university and elsewhere in public life. Secularists, who fear that pious Turks are bent on curbing their right to live as they please, are trying to protect Turkey’s official secularism so fiercely that they are accused of restricting religious freedom. Pious Muslims are clamouring for a change in the strict ban on headscarves as a human right. And, as in the video, it’s the men who do most of the talking.

Some are trying to win votes by banning the headscarf, others by allowing it, and we’re stuck in the middle. For years they have been making politics over me and my headscarf,” one angry young woman told me at Marmara this week.

Secularist students protest in Istanbul against Turkish headscarf reform, 13 Feb. 2008/stringerTurkey’s parliament in Ankara, dominated by the religious-leaning AK Party, has lifted a ban on the use of the headscarf at university. But the secularist establishment is rebelling. The reform has been challenged in court while some rectors refuse to let covered women into class until another law is passed. Secularist students have also protested against the reform, as in the photo to the right. The placard reads “The headscarf cannot liberate women.”

While the secularists accuse covered women of trying to undermine the secular republic, the women themselves deny any political agenda and appear to suffer deeply from what they consider restrictions on their personal freedom.

At the protest this week in Istanbul, one young woman whipped out a copy of the Koran to explain to me what it was all about. This was an order from God, she said, as she guided me patiently through the text. Others I spoke to kept using the word “humiliation” when they described how it felt to go to class “undressed.”

Turkish women demonstrate in Ankara for headscarf reform, 16 Feb. 2008/Umit BektasThese women are now setting their sights on getting the ban lifted in other areas of public life — much to the horror of secularists — so they can put their degrees to use in the public sector. And that guarantees their wardrobe, whether they like it or not, will remain a political issue for years to come.

P.S. Whenever the headscarf issue comes back into the headlines, a wave of articles shows just how many aspects this story has. Here are a few of the most interesting recent ones:

  • Al-Ahram Weekly reports on a beauty salon for covered women in a Cairo suburb.
  • Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol comments on which other reforms the government should introduce now that it has allowed the headscarf at universities.
  • The New York Times describes how secularised urban Turks react to headscarves.
  • The Washington Institute for Near East Policy discuss the foreign policy implications of the headscarf issue for Turkey and the U.S.
  • An American anthropoligist argues in Sightings that the controversy veils what the headscarf really means.
  • British writer Madeleine Bunting says secularists have nothing to fear from women wearing headscarves.
One comment

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While it is understandable for secular muslims to maintain their westernized ways by protesting the headscarf issue,it is more important for seculars to accept that their views cannot be forced upon others who choose to cover their heads.Freedom of speech,expression and basic human rights are essential for Turkeys’ accession into the EU. The aggressive protesting of the lifting of the ban demonstrates how fearful Turkish seculars are that somehow this is the beginning of ,Turkey turning into Iraq’.Turkish citizens must work on how they treat other countrymen whom are different from them with dignity and respect and acceptance with or without a headscarve.

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