Edit Blog Post
Published: January 31st 2008
truck stop mosque
I took this picture at a truck stop halfway between İstanbul and Ankara. Although for many Turks Islam seems to be less important than, say, soccer, it is impossible to forget that this is very much a Muslim country... whatever that means.
So much fuss over a little piece of fabric: the başörtüsü (headscarf) issue has been making the headlines again in Turkey. When President Gül came to power last summer, the press did not quietly ignore the fact that his wife wears one in public. The Turkish government this week removed the ban on women wearing headscarves in its universities. How do I feel about this? After consulting many friends and newspapers, I think I am more confused than ever. The arguments for and against the başörtüsü seem to fly in every direction. Here are some thoughts as I try to sort this out a bit in my own mind.
Though there are no Quranic requirements for women's dress, the headscarf immediately symbolizes conservative Islam, something that American culture has told me I should fear, or at the very least have contempt for. This is part of a much larger discussion of the Western media's successful linking of negative (and often violent) images to an entire massive religion, many different peoples, a rainbow of varying ethnic and cultural groups, which are spread over several continents. Anyway, enough about what I'm supposed to think - moving on to the issue in Turkey...
Change in Turkey's cultural climate?
I can't decide whether there actually are more headscarves being worn in public now than there were when I first came here, in 2004. Perhaps I just notice them more now because recently they've become such a heated topic again. The majority of women do not wear headscarves in public. Of those who do, only a tiny minority dress as if this were Iran or Saudi Arabia, like the woman here on the left.
The lift of the ban is a democratic step, at least on the surface. To the best of my knowledge, throughout the West there are no bans on dress influenced by religious beliefs in universities. The French headscarf ban governs elementary and secondary school, not university (the same ban will remain in effect here in Turkey). I've seen headscarves worn on my home campus, SUNY Geneseo (in Upstate NY), just as I've seen the occasional yarmulke and even a few Jesus t-shirts. Just like their Western peers, female Turkish college students are now at liberty to wear the headscarf, should they want to.
Still, there is a compelling argument that the appearance of headscarves in classrooms could cause some women who wouldn't normally wear one to feel pressured by others to do so. What if a professor has a conservative streak which could result in some bias?
But secularism is so deeply ingrained into Turkish culture, it is difficult for me to imagine that this could ever lead to an extreme change in how Turkish women dress. Of course, Afghan women didn't always have to be clad in identity-stripping burkas (no, that happened after the US government empowered the Taliban.
Smack dab in the middle of my campus is this large statue of - of course - Atatürk. The thought of headscarved young women walking past his metallic image would no doubt cause him to turn circles in his grave - and possibly call out for a stiff drink. Atatürk firmly believed that religion would hold Turkey back, preventing it from modernizing. Today, this idea is being challenged.
I digress...). No, the headscarves here are often quite fashionable (for example, check this out: http://www.tekbirgiyim.com.tr/). Though, it is perhaps even more confusing that a Turkish woman would try to look fashionable and sexy while wearing a garment intended to exhibit that she is pious and modest. How very complicated this is!
Like many political issues here it is a lose-lose situation, to some extent. Keeping the ban would mean limiting an individual freedom. Lifting it could open the door for further conservative cultural reforms. The Turkish military has staunchly defended Turkey's secular-ness (the NY Times regularly mentions that it has removed four governments since 1960). Last summer, the military passively did little more than grumble as the new government came to power.
Is the country destined to become the next Iran?
Nobody I know here prays five times a day - or even goes to the mosque on Fridays, for that matter. My friends talk about visiting Thailand, India, or Italy, not about making hajj. Most of them belong to the young middle class, the 20- and 30-somethings who supposedly elected Gül. Am I blind to the reality of the situation? No doubt there are many more discussions to be had on the subject...
I think secular Turkey is a wonderful place. This is not to say that I am entirely pro-Atatürk - he accomplished some incredible things, yes, but he was certainly no saint (did I just break the law?). The hardening of Islamic cultures has generally not accompanied the growth in spirituality for the average citizen. Take Pakistan, for example. During the reign of Zia, in the 70's and 80's, the country shifted drastically into a much more conservative place. This was not due to Zia's pious nature, but rather as one of his political tools - it allowed him greater control over his citizens. Women have lost the most under such circumstances.
For now, gender equality here does not seem to be in a worse state than it is in my home country - meaning, of course, that there is certainly room for improvement. It would be a shame if misguided religious reforms ever undermined the liberty of Turkish women, and, by doing so, damaged a fine culture.
Tot: 2.087s; Tpl: 0.049s; cc: 10; qc: 65; dbt: 0.0358s; 1; m:saturn w:www (188.8.131.52); sld: 2;
; mem: 1.4mb