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Yazar From The Times-July 18, 2008   
From The Times                                             
July 18, 2008                                                                       

Islam and the great Turkish headscarf war

Turkey's increasingly Islamic Government wants to relax a ban on the Muslim headscarf as traditional secularists fight to maintain it - and Turkish women are caught in the crossfire.

Janice Turner                                  
Faith Central: Miss Muslim Headscarf competition  (*)                                    
Zeynep tugs the knitted cotton hat down over her headscarf. “Secular!” she says. Then she pulls off the hat, leaving just the orange fabric around her pale, earnest face. “Now, not secular!” I'm relieved that she is laughing, sees the funny side of having to look like a Smurf to complete her MA in history. The headscarf war in Turkey is so grave and bitterly entrenched that it has brought angry millions onto the streets. It is why the country's constitutional court this month decides whether the democratically elected AKP Government should be removed from office. A square of coloured silk may yet cause a military coup.
Even so, the code that dictates what Turkish women may or may not stick on their heads when they study at universities or take government jobs has a comic absurdity. In the wig shops that have sprung up across Istanbul, the Christina Aguilera-ish blonde dos are worn by the clubbers and transvestites who party in bars around polyglot Taksim Square, but the bestselling model is a mouse-brown, fringed bob of synthetic hair, bought in the thousands every September by devout Muslim girls, to be pulled from bags and on to heads to replace the scarves that must be removed before they can pass through college doors. Turkey, always a gateway between Europe and Asia, is the nexus of our most fervent global dialogues: East v West, secularism v religion, state v the individual. Turkey poses the question: can an Islamic nation be truly democratic? And how the West longs for an affirmative answer. In the middle, strafed by ideological crossfire, dragged between camps and paraded by each in triumph like Helen of Troy, is the Turkish woman. Who has control over her body? The imams, the State or the woman?
It is best to be honest and say that, as a Western, secular feminist, I abhor the headscarf. In London, I feel anger and dismay at eight-year-old British Muslim girls in hijab. If this is an act of sexual propriety, why is it now so often extended to prepubescent children, other than to render women hamstrung and invisible, almost from birth? Loose clothing, the covering of legs and arms, I can better understand. The invocation to Western women to look perpetually “hot” and up-for-it is depressing, too.
But the head is the site of our brains, our faces, our individuality. To cover it in public implies sublimation, a need to be hidden, disregarded, subordinate to male authority under the guise of religious observance. The degree to which women are covered in any Muslim country is a reliable index of their oppression.
In this I am in accord with the Turkish secular republic founded by Mustafa Kemel Atatürk, who 80 years ago, in his rapid modernisation of what he saw as a backward, superstitious country, demanded that men remove their fez hats and women their veils. Atatürk, however, had no issue with the traditional Turkish headscarf, worn by grandmothers and villagers even today, knotted simply under the chin like Princess Anne at a horse trial, or even Hilda Ogden. It is a subtly different style that has enraged the upholders of the Turkish secular ideal, that uneasy alliance of feminists, left-leaning intellectuals, the wealthy and Western-facing “white Turks” - and the army, Nato's second largest, which has ousted four governments in 50 years. Like the scarf Zeynep wears, this is pinned carefully to conceal the neck, throat and hair. Non-native to Turkey, but favoured by the Middle Eastern countries that surround it, this style has become the symbol of political Islam.
When Abdullah Gül was elected President, that his wife Hayünnisa wore a headscarf horrified secularists. Many marched against her but the AKP called an election to decide the issue, were returned with an increased mandate and Gül took office. But Mrs Gül's scarf means that she cannot perform state duties at home and, when she is photographed at G8 summits or, in May dining with the Queen, secularists froth with outrage.
The hardline laicists (followers of the French principle that religion belongs wholly in the private domain) such as Dr Aysel Eksi, a psychiatrist at Istanbul's International Hospital, see Mrs Gül's headscarf as nothing less than the starting flag to Islamic revolution. Dr Eksi was a professor at the medical school in 1989 when a covered woman first appeared in her class. These first women in headscarves, she believes, were agent provocateurs, paid by Iranian or Saudi groups who funded their ultimately unsuccessful legal actions.
Dr Eksi, 74, who helped to organise demonstrations against the AKP when it revoked the headscarf ban last year (only to be quickly thwarted by the courts), counts on her fingers the Muslim countries that have fallen to fundamentalism in her lifetime: Algeria, Morocco, Indonesia, Tunisia, Pakistan, Iran. “We are worried by this Government,” she says. “The President comes from a very religious background. These people don't see women as equal human beings. This is why they fight for the headscarf. They just want to hide women from the eyes of man. It will be followed by segregation. This means male doctors never examining female patients and vice versa.”
When I say I will be taking tea with Mrs Gül that evening, Dr Eksi bangs her desk with passion and cries “I hate her!”. Turkey's most controversial woman is elegantly made up and wearing a chic, fitted leather jacket, a calf-length skirt and patent shoes. Mrs Gül, 41, has merry, dancing eyes and a girlish high voice. As she recounts - through a translator - how she ran the family businesses while her husband built his political career, insists on her own bank account, pushed her daughter as hard as her sons to get into a top American university, and plans to speak out against honour killings, it strikes me how I would interpret her differently but for the white silk swathing her scalp. “I don't judge you because you have blonde hair,” she says later. “I cover my head, not my brain.”
The secularists are scared of you, I say. They believe what you wear means that the Government will soon prescribe what they wear. She laughs and says in English, almost coquettishly, “are you frightened of me?” Then she adds: “Sometimes on hot days in the sun, it is uncomfortable to wear the headscarf. I don't think it is something you can force upon women.” They did so in Iran. “But Turkey is a different society. Families are all mixed together. Some members wear the headscarf, others don't. We are used to their different choices.”
Walking through Istanbul's ultra-modern Kanyon mall with its Harvey Nichols and Agent Provocateur, or in Nisantasi, the city's
Bond Street
, where the women shopping at Marc Jacobs and Chanel appear wholly European, it is hard to conceive that 62 per cent of Turkish women cover their heads. Yet in Fatih, over on the eastern side of the city, is a parallel fashion universe, whole shops devoted to Turkish Islamic high street clobber that far from being dour is full of bright colours, and tight-fitting tops, sparkly appliqué and funky shoes. Only the ankle-length beige pardosu overcoats and the ludicrous Islamic swimwear - a hideous lime green shell suit - seem grim. The scarf is worn in various styles, the most modish being the “turban”, whereby the hair beneath is piled into a bun, pushing the material up in a cone like a medieval damsel. I was warned that I'd feel uneasy in Fatih, that the atmosphere is heavily devout. But it feels far less so than parts of London's East End.
I wonder what it must be like to produce a fashion magazine in a country where clothing is brimming with political import. The editor that I meet - of a monthly glossy - fears being named. I ask if she includes styles for women in headscarves and her green eyes fill with disdain. “Do you think Gucci would advertise if I did that?” Would she employ such a woman? She flicks through features on Sex and the City and a bikini beach shoot: “What would she understand of any of this?” she asks. “These people are ignorant.” The editor and her staff joined the demonstration against Gül: “But they didn't listen, they gave it to him anyway, so what's the point?” He was democratically elected, I say. “I don't care, I hope the court kicks him out.” “Look,” she says finally, “my magazine sells only tens of thousands of copies. My reader is not a typical Turkish woman. We are like a small European country in the middle of Turkey.” An island, I say. “Yes,” she say, “but we are the island that makes the money.” And it is this, if anything, that should reassure secular Turkey.
Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a pragmatist, a technocrat and a moderniser, whose twin goals have been to build the economy through international trade and ensure Turkey's accession to the EU. Both would be jeopardised by imposing Sharia. But still the AKP is believed to have a hidden agenda, to be chipping away at personal liberties. Among the anti-secular charges against the AKP in the constitutional court is - bizarrely - that Erdogan said that he wanted to see headscarved and unheadscarved friends walking hand in hand, which is indeed a common sight in Istanbul. In 2004 the AKP's attempt to make adultery illegal - it claimed it was to outlaw polygamy - was greeted with horror by feminists, fearful that women would be most severely punished. There are reports of swimming pools being segregated, alcohol licences being refused and internet porn sites being banned.
The real change is that Islam - in the shape of women in headscarves - is altering the political climate, not by force, but by sheer numbers. Thirty years ago, the only headscarves in Istanbul were worn by domestic servants or visiting villagers. But in recent years, an aspirational but devout middle class has risen, spreading into the cities. As its political voice, the AKP, has gained power, so they have gained confidence.
Now the secularists see headscarved women sitting next to them in Starbucks or fancy restaurants or attending top universities. They no longer stick to “their” parts of town. I meet Ece Temelkuran, a left-wing journalist on the newspaper Milliyet in a hip café in Cihangir, the Soho of Istanbul. “I'm supposed to be the secular elite,” she says. “It is a joke. I can only be myself in five or six districts of this city and on the Aegean or south coasts. The harassment of women who don't cover up is increasing. I get called a whore as I walk down the street. The confidence of the Islamic movement is shoring up lumpen sexism among Turkish men.” She is frequently vilified in the Islamic press, particularly after her column titled “The sexy turban”, about the contrary messages sent out by the gorgeous, young women in headscarves that I watched buying lingerie in Kanyon mall: “They are like ‘I am sexy, but you can't f*** me until you marry me',” says Ece. She assumes - as do all her progressive friends - that her phone is tapped.
Many secularists view the pious with a mix of anxiety, Brahmin superiority and blatant snobbery. As much as being Islamic, the headscarf is a sign of the nouveau riche. One woman told me that her mother boycotts her local market now that headscarves have appeared. Another said that her mother-in-law used to harangue them in the street. “Take that off,” she'd shout. “It looks ugly, I hate it.” The maitre d' at my hotel is aghast that “these people” have moved into her apartment block and is sure that they want to evict her terrier “because Islam believes dogs are dirty”. But the few women in headscarves willing to speak to me say that they don't judge their uncovered sisters and don't wish to impose their personal choice on others.
“It is not the will of God to make all people Muslim,” says Zeynep, 28 and pregnant with her first child. “A woman can wear a scarf only if she wants to wear it. She must not be forced. It is a torture. But it is equally wrong to prohibit as to enforce it.”
Kübra Sivgin, 27, a mergers and acquisitions lawyer, is the only woman in a headscarf in her legal firm. From a devout Muslim family, who nonetheless sent her to a church school when her father studied in Britain, she covered her head at 17: “It was a matter of identity. If you want to be a Muslim, you have to keep it in your identity. It is a social and an individual thing.” She describes the scarf as her “umbrella” against the world, which enables her to work alongside men. At university, forced to remove it, she felt that her identity was fractured into her covered and uncovered self. Friends, also forced to bare their heads, became depressed, some left college or studied abroad.
Kübra's husband, Mustafa, sits drinking tea. He is proud of her career, doesn't complain that because she often works 12-hour days, she can't cook his supper, which - Turkish women tell me - makes him a jewel among Turkish men. But her firm has indicated that when she is more senior she will not be permitted to attend client meetings and, when she wrote several articles for a British law journal, would not allow her picture to be printed. “They don't want to be represented to international firms by women like me,” she says. “That really hurt.” Secular friends say that she is modern and open-minded. “But,” says Kübra. “all the women in headscarves who are my age are aware of the world.” Indeed, that girls from conservative families can enjoy similar freedoms as secular Turks, seems the best reason to lift the ban. Turkish papers ran a photo recently of a headscarved teenager in the mosh-pit of a gig, leaping excitedly, her T-shirt riding up to reveal her midriff.
There is no more secular a woman than Nursuna Memecan, elegant, American-educated, progressive, her husband a satirical cartoonist and her huge and airy Istanbul apartment full of Eames chairs and modern art. Yet Nursuna is an MP for the AKP. When she was elected, friends wrote in horror “you represent my cleaning lady but not me”. The secular elite, she says, bangs on about the headscarf yet cares nothing about the dismal status of ordinary Turkish women - high levels of domestic violence and honour crimes, plus low political representation and literacy - which is a major barrier to the country's admission into the EU.
Nursuna reels off a list of AKP improvements. The Government pays the poor to send their kids to school - more for a girl than a boy. This money is paid directly to mothers, giving them unprecedented financial independence. The penal code was amended so that it is no longer a greater offence to rape a married woman than a single one, because in the former case you were also dishonouring a man. And the AKP has encouraged women to get involved at village level, writing reports about who needs financial help or medicine, gaining confidence, becoming visible. “When I visit these rural places I can always spot the woman in charge,” says Nursuna. “She's the one wearing most make-up.”
Lifting the ban would lower the political heat, silence the accusation that feminists, far from forwarding the cause of Muslim women, are doing quite the opposite: denying many an education, forcing them into earlier marriage. “Let them wear it,” says Ece Temelkuran. “I am sick of it being waved by the AKP as a flag of democracy. This Islamic movement is like squeezed toothpaste, you cannot force it back in.” Mesim Arat, a lecturer at Bosphorus University, the most liberal college in Turkey, where academics have turned a blind eye to the practice, agrees. “We need to be more lenient on headscarves and more critical of the process at work if we are democratic. Around 60 to 70 per cent are covered anyway. We have come to the point where those who are going to cover are already covered up. And 25 per cent are totally opposed and will never wear it.
“Women who wear headscarves have already been exposed to religious ideology. It affects the kind of things they want in life. They make more passive choices. Being a wife and mother is encouraged and there is nothing wrong with that. But equal choices are not given. They are not given any real, substantial options.” What has escaped attention is the role of the Department of Islamic Affairs. Set up by Atatürk to harness Islam, it has lately been used to promote it, building mosques, setting up Islamic schools and Koranic courses for children. The budget is equal to the cost of 22 Turkish universities.
And its imams - government employees - are not censored when they preach, for example, against women working. The department's website recently stated that the sexes should not mix outside marriage. “Women have to be more careful, since they have stimulants,” it said, referring to their bodies. “They should not show their ornaments and figure and they should cover in a fine manner.”
Fashion designer Rabia Yalçin designs clothes with just this aim. Her haute couture dresses, heavy with beading, cost up to $10,000 each. But they reflect the Islamic code that a woman has both a private and public self. Cloaks or lavish jackets are used to cover the strappy numbers, rendering them modest. Seeing a dress in which the breasts are covered by tulips, I remark that surely a headscarved woman couldn't wear it. Rabia smiles: “Yes, one bought the dress - for her husband's birthday.”
Since there are no men in our party, Rabia reveals her thick dark bob. But when it is time to be photographed, she disappears. When she returns, she gestures at the white fabric around her head and says: “See, nothing is lost.” But I see a different person, a woman from the other side of a divide wider than the Bosphorus. I cannot look her in the eye.
What the law says
Under Turkey's secular constitution, the wearing of the Islamic headscarf is banned from all Government institutions. This means that covered women cannot work as doctors, lawyers, civil servants or teachers and, most controversially, cannot attend university.
Women in headscarves have circumvented the ban by wearing hats or baseball caps over their scarves, or covering their real hair with wigs. Others have dropped out of college altogether, while the wealthier, such as the two daughters of Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have opted to study abroad.
Although in theory the ban extends to all religious dress, attempts to restrict men with traditional Islamic beards were abandoned after a few days.

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