The headscarf and women’s rights


On last week’s comments

(Spam and bacon aside,) Your comments on last week’s post were very thoughtful. Many of you asked about the traditional division between East and West, wondering how it can be explained geographically. The answer is: it can’t. The cardinal directions – North, South, East, and West – are helpful for knowing where we are and how to get to the next place. However, the Earth is round; when we divide it up vertically, we have to choose what goes where. That is to say, the Prime Meridian is made up (but the Equator is real because it’s the exact halfway point between the Poles), but even the Prime Meridian places the U.S. in the Western Hemisphere and Germany in the Eastern Hemisphere. The Prime Meridian, then, does not help us understand these old definitions.

Consider Australia, whose population is mostly white, English-speaking, and Christian. Australia is considered to be a Western country despite the fact that most of its landmass is directly south of China, which is a classically Eastern country. I hope this helps illustrate that these labels are culturally-determined and have little, perhaps nothing to do with geography.

You also had a lot of comments about Turkey’s attempts to join the EU. Most of you supported Turkey’s membership because you felt that the EU’s reasons for rejecting Turkey were invalid. For the most part, I happen to feel the same way, but there’s a complex web of (mainly economic) factors in this decision that I can’t pretend to understand thoroughly, so I didn’t include them in last week’s post. This is a good time for a reminder that I am no expert on these matters.

The headscarf

Today’s post topic gives us an opportunity to combine a lot of things we’ve learned about Turkey’s history, culture, politics, and religion. It’s also a relevant way to introduce the topic of gender equality in Turkey, something you’ve asked about in comments.

First, I’d like to clarify what the headscarf is exactly. The simple answer is that it’s a garment commonly worn by Muslim women. In the Qur’an, Mohammed asks women and men to be highly modest in the way they dress and behave. Though he does not actually command women to wear a headscarf (or similar piece of clothing), he stresses the importance of hijab which literally means “barrier” or “partition.” This word has since taken on a broader meaning; Muslims use the term hijab to refer to a general way of being modest. It is interpreted differently in different parts of the world.

A few types of headscarves (note: the names vary depending on region and language)


Not all Muslim women believe the headscarf is a necessary part of Qur’anic modesty. A recent study showed that about 62% of Turkish women wear a headscarf, but as we know, Turkey’s population is much more than 62% Muslim. Of course, there are a lot of reasons why women wear – or don’t wear – the headscarf. It should come as no surprise that Turkey’s dramatic political history has influenced the wearing of headscarves.

The headscarf and women’s rights

Shortly after the Republic was founded, women were discouraged from wearing the headscarf. In fact, they were prohibited from wearing it while working in public positions as lawyers, teachers, or members of government. Apart from this, women could wear headscarves in public, though the new Republic’s spirit of secularism made it so they sometimes faced discrimination; for example, some employers were less likely to hire “headscarf women.” Many argue this still happens today.

The wolf prohibits the headscarfed Little Red Riding Hood from entering his forst.

The wolf prohibits Little Red Riding Hood from entering his forest because she is wearing a headscarf.

The reason headscarves were banned at all is that Atatürk believed religion shouldn’t play a role in public life. He thought that, if women wore Islamic attire in governmental positions, it would represent a dangerous integration of religion into political affairs or public education.

In the 1980s, the government passed a more restrictive ban on the headscarf, which prohibited university students from wearing headscarves. This ban wasn’t consistently enforced though; sometimes women were able to wear headscarves to class, sometimes not. Women were able to get away with wearing a headscarf, but they often had to hide it in ridiculous ways or simply enroll in a more headscarf-tolerant university. Here’s how the Turkish Review explains it:

The actual implementation of the ban was left to the discretion of the universities themselves, resulting in the emergence of various ways to get around the ban on the part of the students, including transferring to a different university, wearing an obvious wig on top of the headscarf (or more simply, wearing a hat) and taking examinations without coming to school.

My own university, Boğaziçi, has alternated between allowing and prohibiting the headscarf. In 2008, a time when there was no official ban on the headscarf, Boğaziçi’s director of the department of education (where students study to become teachers) imposed the ban on his own students, saying “I’m the boss here . . . If you’re going to come to class wearing a headscarf, then change departments!” Many female students, both headscarf-wearing and non-headscarf-wearing, organized protests against this policy. Now, there is no ban against headscarves at Boğaziçi.

When I asked some of my female classmates about their opinions on headscarves, I found out they are generally opposed to any sort of ban. My friend Elif is very liberal and a non-Muslim. She argues that the headscarf ban is oppressive not only to Muslims, but to women in general. She and many other Turkish women feel that the decision of whether to wear a headscarf should be a personal matter, not a political one. Although women and men are officially considered equal by Turkish law, many Turkish feminists believe that the problem with headscarf bans is that they represent authority of men over women.

Although she doesn’t wear a headscarf, Elif also mentioned that some non-Muslim feminists have donned headscarves as a protest against headscarf bans. This came as a huge surprise to me. It reminded me of the way I used to think about headscarf-wearing women when I was younger. I thought the headscarf was a symbol of oppression against Muslim women. It didn’t even occur to me that they might prefer to wear it, and I certainly would’ve never thought of it as a statement for women’s rights. But when she told this, all of a sudden it made a lot of sense. As a non-Muslim and non-female (or male, for short), I will probably never understand all of the reasons why a woman would prefer to wear headscarf. Clearly my old assumptions about it were wrong, and I’m sure I still don’t understand what goes into the decision of whether to wear a headscarf, so it would be wrong of me to judge them.

On the other side of the spectrum from Turkey are countries like Afghanistan, where women are (unofficially) required to wear the burqa (see the slideshow above for an illustration), a type of hijab that covers the entire face and body. While this clearly oppresses women’s rights, I’m sure that even if Afghanistan imposed a ban against head coverings, some Afghan women would still prefer to wear the burqa. Because of this, I would argue that any type of law targeting headscarves creates a problem for individual rights and gender equality.

Female politicians wearing headscarves in the Turkish Parliament for the first time in many decades

Female politicians wearing headscarves in the Turkish Parliament for the first time in many decades

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (remember, last name: EHR-doh-wahn) repealed the law against women wearing headscarves in public offices just a few weeks ago. This infuriated some of the nation’s secularists, who feel that this is the next step in Erdoğan’s plot to undo make Turkey an Islamic state. But many Turks feel like this is a step toward improved gender equality, even if it the decision was inspired by Erdoğan’s Islamic leanings. News headlines did a nice job of illustrating different ways to interpret this event:

Turks applaud Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s easing of headscarf ban (Financial Times)

Turkey’s headscarf ban lifted in assault on the secular state (The Times)

The headscarf issue is no doubt a complicated one, especially for people like us who aren’t very accustomed to Islamic culture. However, I believe it’s also part of a more relatable issue of individual rights, freedom of religious expression, and gender equality. What do you think? What has your reaction been when you see women wearing different types hijab? Do you believe America is doing a good job of preserving individual rights?



  1. America is doing okay in preserving individual rights.
    I think it’s a good thing that they lifted the ban on headscarves.
    Whenever I see women with headscarves, sometimes I hope they won’t get angry that I’m usually wearing a ninja mask that is actually mt shirt. Also, I’ve only seen women with headscarves in my tennis center (very rarely outside the place).

  2. I see, so a country is determined/defined based on the people living there and its culture rather than the location it occupies on the globe. That was an interesting post. Women were originally wearing headscarves a lot, but then the people didn’t want religious beliefs interfering with government/education, and they were therefore banned. However, people have freedom of religion, so I guess they have the right to keep them on to honor their beliefs. It can be discouraged for practical reasons, but cannot be completely banned.

  3. That was an interesting and educational post. Thank you. I didn’t know that there had ever been bans on headscarfs. I knew that in some places women were required to wear them, but I never thought of a ban on them. I guess Atatürk’s reasons were not horrible, but I think that people should be allowed to wear scarves if they want to.

  4. I wasn’t even aware that there were bans on wearing headscarves, either!
    Here in Portland, I occasionally spot some women wearing headscarves at Fred Meyer’s or just when we are at the mall. Now that I think about it, I don’t personally know anyone who wears a headscarf… I’ve been raised in a Christian family so I’m not very accustomed to the Muslim traditions/clothing.
    I think that America gives everyone equal rights and a chance for individual rights, no matter your nationality/race, social class, or religion.
    Thank you so much for the post!


  5. This has enlightened me to the situation around headscarves. While i was aware that they were worn and banned at some point in time, I was not aware that the issues around it were still so current. I can see a little why the headscarf situation can be involved in women’s rights, but I don’t fully understand why people are so strong about it. I guess it is something I personally don’t know. Though I do definitely agree that the choice to wear a head scarf (anything really) should be a personal matter, and politics shouldn’t be able to tell you what to wear, even if it might be religion related. This relates to individual rights and freedoms, like the freedom of speech etc.

  6. America does a crappy job of treating people with headscarves fairly, but we do better than many other places. Same with many other human rights issues, actually…

    Well, now I don’t know what to comment on, because you already said everything I was planning on saying! Regulating any form of nonharmful religious expression is oppressive. (Pretty much every word in that sentence was 3+ syllables. That’s fancy.) It’s pretty cool that the non-Muslim feminists wore the hijabs to show their support, though I wonder if it offended some Muslims to see their religious article of clothing being worn by someone not part of the religion, and therefore someone who probably cannot fully understand the significance of it.

    I used to think the hijab was a symbol of oppression, until I read this book called _Does My Head Look Big in This?_ It was a well-written book that completely changed my perspective on hijabs and Islam.

    I think the FORCED (not chosen) popularity of different types of head coverings often can be a good measure of women’s equality in a given Muslim country. The more modest a woman is forced to be, the more oppressed they usually become. (When modesty is taken too far, it can mean that you’re not able to speak your mind, stand up for yourself, or have many basic human rights.) For example, in Afghanistan (as you mentioned), the burqa is compulsory. And it’s currently pretty much the bottom rung of the women’s-rights ladder (that’s totally a thing), in many more ways than just that.

    Please tell me if any of my statements are incorrect! 🙂

    • I wasn’t actually trying to make italics, I was just showing that the text was italicized. Most people know that underscores around text translate into italicized text. So I didn’t fail at my goal, Anders.

  7. I agree, that I always thought the headscarf was the constriction. I never thought they would WANT to do it. When I see people wearing hijab, I normally just think ‘oh, she is muslim’. Not much else. Besides, my mother wears a headscarf, one more revealing(just around the head, more like a turban) but she does it because part of our beliefs in our sect of Judaism is that a married woman should show her hair only to her family or husband. I think that America is doing an OK job of preserving rights. What you were saying about the women going on strike makes me think of whats going on here. The teachers might be going on strike in a month or two because of a law that is being/not being passed (i don’t know much about it currently).

  8. Wow, I never knew there was this much controversy over wearing a headscarf. This has taught me a lot more than I already knew about headscarves because all I knew about them were that worn by women which is near to nothing. Thank you for teaching me more about them!

  9. Hahaha I’m kinda laughing at Molly’s failed attempt to use underscores to create italics (that’s how you would do that in Google chat). Like other people, I did know that in some places, women have been required to wear headscarves, but I did not know that there was ever a ban on headscarves. I do often see people wearing headscarves in public, but I never really make a note of it; I’ve always known that was part of their religion (or something like that). America isn’t doing the best job of preserving individual rights, but many laws are helping to make it more equal.

  10. In 2010 Oregon lifted its ban on teachers wearing religious clothing at school. In 2013, Quebec bans public sector workers from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols in public. Are you aware that some Orthodox Christians also wear scarves, long sleeves and long skirts for the purpose of modesty. Islam does not make Afghanistan more oppressive the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam in Afghanistan makes the country more so.

    What I really love about teaching is the different cultures that are represented in the public schools. I have taught several female Muslim students who wear their headscarves, because they follow the principles of Islam, and also have fathers who want them to be engineers and astronauts. I have three friends who converted to Islam, who choose to wear their headscarves. They are strong females who husbands treat them as equals. This is a complicated issue.

    The preserving of individuals freedoms, should be what is first and foremost. I hope that people understand this: Every woman who wears a hijab is not persecuted; and not every woman who wears a hijab is free.

    P.S. Anders making scathing comments about another student not okay.

  11. This weekend I saw pictures of a fashion show in Slovakia where they featured models wearing burkas and head scarves. I thought that was interesting.

  12. That’s a no-no Anders.
    P.S. sorry Ms.Kelly I couldn’t resist

  13. I rarely get to see people wearing headscarves, but when I do, I think it’s good that they’re able to wear what they want. It’s also good that the ban on headscarves is gone because should people have the right to wear what they want. I think that America is doing a good job on preserving individual rights. Thanks for telling us why people wear headscarves and what types there are!

  14. I like the little cartoon about little red riding hood. I assume that’s some sort of political cartoon? From someone against headscarves? It seems kind of strange otherwise. Do you have the same fairy tales in turkey, then?
    I have also thought of headscarves as oppressive to women. I didn’t realize they were less of an oppression and more of a religious and cultural costume. I agree that people should be free to wear what they want regardless of whether it’s religious or not. Except when you’re in school. No spaghetti straps.

  15. I think the women in Turkey should act as a role model for america today. Their undying need for their own rights is really inspiring.

  16. This really reminds me of the book Persepolis, when Marjane is arguing to her principal about headscarves and body-coverings, where it’s like one big scarf over all of you. It’s always fascinated me to see how women are treated differently, especially in regards to clothing and hair (which has never made sense to me. How could a man become aroused by the sight of a woman’s hair?). Have you ever read Persepolis, and if so, does it remind you at all of how women are/were treated in Turkey?

  17. Hi….
    This post is quite a bit late, sorry.
    I believe that women can wear anything they want unless it threatens anybody else. But I wonder why people care what a person wears if it isn’t harmful… Anyway some people have their opinions even if they do harm rights.

  18. I agree with Sam. As long as the clothes aren’t harmful (in ANY way), they should be able to wear anything.

  19. Since I’ve lived in America all my life, things like bans on certain types of clothing like that just seem really surprising to me. I can’t imagine living somewhere like that. Not that it’s terribly bad for me (being male), but it seems like another world to me. It really makes me think about how many freedoms I’m given as an american citizen. Banning headscarves seems almost unbelievable to me, because I’m used to people retaliating very quickly to that sort of thing.

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