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.
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 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.
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?